KNOXVILLE - There's nothing particularly new in what first-year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is doing to a crestfallen Volunteer football program, unless you happen to care intensely about Tennessee football. If that's the case, he's nothing short of a revelation.
It's why safety Byron Moore now knows that another Carson, Ca. product, linebacker Kevin Burnett, played between the checkerboards in Knoxville just a decade ago, and why that should matter to him.
"I had no idea until I started researching that," Moore admits.
Jones has issued a mandate that all active roster players study and then present reports on former Volunteers who have worn their current numbers, as well as every All-American that's ever come through the program.
"It's cool to see that there had been players from before that had come out here from California and do well."
Remember the handy guide to spring college football cliches? If you're playing along, it's a short path to bingo in Neyland Stadium during a sunny Saturday scrimmage, but that doesn't mean the intent isn't genuine.
Every player will give 100 percent.
Throughout Saturday's two-hour plus scrimmage, a collection of yellow-jersey'd players out with injuries were tucked in a corner of one end zone with a strength and conditioning assistant. Depending on their ailments, the players had to perform a rotating series of basic, low/no-resistance reps on isolated muscle groups the entire scrimmage.
I periodically checked - the players never stopped exercising. I've seen IR guys putter on ellipticals, but I've never seen that level of organized conditioning from the bench.
This is a great program with great traditions we're looking to uphold.
Jones has practiced first rate PR, but it's also necessary. Everything about the Tennessee era following Phil Fulmer has been a corrosion of identity. Lane Kiffin brought in a NFL resume and a WWE mouth, forcing players to model themselves after the same USC program he'd eventually ditch them for. Then came Derek Dooley, the son of Georgia legend Vince Dooley, who at his first SEC Media Days prompted more questions about what color his famous parents would be wearing on gameday than about the program itself. Both coaches failed miserably to court former players and both ate the curb on the statewide rubber chicken circuit.
In its own weird, 2013 way, that's also why Moore has been encouraged to engage in program-approved troll wars with the Vols' offensive coaching staff. In the spirit of competition, the digitally verbose senior is one of a few players smack-talking the opposing side on Twitter, and coaches are joining in:
"Everybody on staff has to have a Twitter now," Moore said. "It's about building our logo, building our brand. It's fun to have coaches on there and talk trash. But it's more about putting out some positive energy for Tennessee right now."
Chris Spognardi is Jones' assistant, and monitors the entire Tennessee football social media spectrum almost 24 hours a day through multiple cell phones, a dual-monitor system in his office and a tablet that's never out of reach. There is a staff-wide mandate to tweet, and Spognardi monitors uniform hashtag usage and any phrasing or interactions that could be viewed as dangerous or negative. He said Jones' Twitter followers have jumped from around 12,000 upon his hire to over 72,000, which makes Jones the third most-followed college head coach in the nation. Spognardi also insists that Jones primarily runs his own account. If you're a Vol who nabs a RT from the head coach, that really is Butch Jones tweeting you.
"Our staff has embraced this since we've been at Cincinnati. We've been doing this for this three years, we know the positives and negatives. I'm looking at 30, 35 accounts over Facebook and Twitter, making sure that everyone's compliant, that everyone is on message."
We're going to make football fun again for our student-athletes.
"It's really fun," Moore promises. "Everyone's excited to come out here each day and the competition that Coach promotes is fun. We take that serious, who gets that orange jersey. And it makes it a lot more fun than it's been in the past."
Competition is open at every position.
Of course it is, because new head coaches don't show up to tinker with five-star rosters executing successful, brilliant schemes.
The Vols have arguably the thinnest amount of skill position talent in the SEC. Wide receiver "Pig" Howard could be a quality contributor on any roster but will have to become a No. 1 option overnight. The lack of quality depth behind the departed Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter is stunning to see now.
Running back will be the de facto strength of the offense because of experience, but Jones criticized the field vision of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane on Saturday. The tandem will likely carry the load - the quarterback race is beyond wide open - but will have to adjust to running out of the spread, something Jones' UC teams excelled at.
We're going to bring a new excitement to this team.
Consistently successful programs usually have boring springs. If your team has depth and low turnover on the staff, March and April are vanilla by design. Under new regimes inheriting losing teams, April is your own personal NCAA Football Dynasty Mode gone wild - players switch positions, wild new plays and techniques are experimented with and every day's official team practice report has some exciting new detail.
For instance, Saturday's scrimmage was an unquestionable defensive victory, with that unit beating the offense by a "score" of 86-63 (don't worry about figuring the metric out) and forcing a long string of three-and-out possessions from the first- and second-stringers. Does this mean the SEC's worst defense is suddenly better? Not necessarily. It means that one play, a challenged offense can't find read the field and Lane is absolutely tattooed by two defenders on a dump-off pass, and a few plays later the defense overcommits on a zone read and Lane gashes a 50-yard run.
We want the fans to be a part of this program.
On this particular Saturday, Jones has ordered each player to hand-deliver practice invitations to current UT faculty members. Before the scrimmage, the team and coaches, interspersed with professors, takes a group picture.
Immediately following, players fresh from full-contact play don baby blue t-shirts for a meet and greet (and another group picture) with a local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter. The SID staff promises that, halfway though spring ball, this is nothing new since Jones came in, but completely, totally different for the program in recent years.
There's more energy in practice!
Jones apparently likes his energy aural. When I visited Cincinnati last season before the Bearcats' penultimate Keg of Nails game against Louisville, mobile speakers blared an audio mash of what UC staffers not-so-affectionately termed "The Eight Most Annoying Sounds In The World," a overlapping, shifting mix of screaming babies, road construction, industrial engines, alarm clocks, a chainsaw, multiple sirens, ringing phones and good old crowd noise. Artificial noise in practice for road games is nothing new - the purpose is to practice silent snap counts and have the center make line checks - but Jones' aim is to teach every player to focus individually through confusion.
In the infancy of this overhaul, the Vols aren't focused on road noise, but Jones is no quieter. A mobile audio receiver connected to a wireless microphone pipes Jones' voice through the P.A. system of Neyland Stadium. Jones spends the entire day announcing down and distance scenarios in full scrimmages, addressing players by their full names on penalties or big plays and enjoying the ability to address his entire team at once without losing his normally soft and gravelly voice, a problem he faced throughout his career,
It's a blessing for assembled media members because plays are easier to chart, and it's an incentive for players to not have their names called out. When Howard fumbles after a catch, Jones quips, "107,000 people just groaned!" to muffled laughs from players on the other sideline. During a series of passing plays, quarterback Nathan Peterman walks over to Jones after breaking the huddle, after which the coach announces, "The quarterback is now LIVE, by request! You want it, we'll give it to you!" This is received with hooting enthusiasm from the defensive sideline (Peterman went untouched on the following play, a long incompletion down the left sideline).
We're going to bring in a new attitude.
There's a reason why, far from any measurable game, years from a fair shake with an ideal roster, coaches like Jones spend the time they do. Quarterback Justin Worley didn't attribute a bad afternoon for the offense to inexperience with the offensive system, but rather the lingering attitude of teams past.
"Just falling back on what we used to do," Worley says, "and that was kind of tucking our tails between our legs and pouting. We need to work on getting away from that, and we've made huge strides, but that's still happening here and there. That hurts, but I think we're making strides in the right direction. Everybody's buying in to what the coaches are teaching and preaching. It's night and day."
If there's a tried and true cliche of the new head coach in the changing-culture mode, it's access. Early on in Saturday's scrimmage a football staff rep informs SID Jason Yellin that a previously set rule requiring reporters to move off the sidelines at a certain point was nixed by Jones. It's the same reason when, two hours after the scrimmage, he'll retweet me when I test the savvy of the new social media monitoring system. There are no questions about the long and unpleasant task of returning Tennessee to a level of winning that might have passed this program by completely, but the new Orange mandate is to have an arm around your shoulder.
"If the fans are behind you and embrace you and there's a bad break during the game, it might not be as bad as if you shut everyone out and give no access," Spognardi said.
We're going to recruit harder than we ever have.
Those homework assignments to read about the history of the Vol Navy? As SB Nation recruiting analyst Bud Elliot has reported, that could bode well for a first-year coach (born in Michigan) who happens to be courting multiple top prospects with close family ties to former Vol players.
The Southeastern Conference has been building to this type of coach at this level of a program. The SEC has seen this recipe before, specifically in Mississippi State's Dan Mullen, Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze, Vanderbilt's James Franklin, and even Kevin Sumlin at newcomer Texas A&M: a young outsider trying to bridge the gap between disillusionment and impatient expectations for success with tech-savvy rallying and a fast-paced spread offense.
And a lot of recruiting. Like, a lot. Between zone reads and hashtags and exhaustive public speaking schedules, the dynamic new personality buys him a season of forgiveness. Jones is landing blue chip talents, making the long-suffering loyals tout next year with less and less doubt. Certainly the recent verbal commitment of five-star running back Jalen Hurd will serve as a balm for what will likely be another fight for six or so wins this fall.