Every job will be open, and the players competing for Tennessee this spring will have a new look.
Those were two of the primary messages of UT coach Butch Jones as he spoke to the media on Monday afternoon, one day ahead of the Vols taking the practice field for the first of 14 spring practice sessions that will lead up to the Orange and White Game on April 22 in Neyland Stadium.
“I think it’s been a very, very productive offseason,” Jones said as he gets set to begin his fifth year of spring practices in Knoxville.
And while that’s a common refrain from coaches around the nation this time of year, there are reasons to believe that Tennessee might be physically ahead of where it has been in the past. At this time last year, the strength and conditioning team was in transition. Former head football strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson had moved to working with other sports at UT before he ultimately left Tennessee altogether on April 22, 2016.
A year later, the Vols are being led by one of the most recognized strength and conditioning coaches in the nation – NFL strength coaching veteran Rock Gullickson – who came to Tennessee from the L.A. Rams with decades of professional experience.
“It all starts in the weight room, and Rock Gullickson and the entire strength and conditioning staff have really done a remarkable job,” Jones said. “They’ve set the temperament for our football team. Coach Rock has a unique way of challenging our players in a very, very positive way and we’re getting the results necessary for us to compete at a very high level.”
Part of that will be upping personal bests in the weight room and getting faster across the board, but another large piece of the equation will be having a healthier team in 2017.
The Vols were decimated at several positions due to injury in 2016. Eight players will spend the spring on the shelf due to various injuries, several of which are the after effects of last year’s issues. Jones will have to wait until the fall to see how much the new strength and conditioning program pay off in terms of preventing injuries in the future, but, based on his early observations of the team, he sees progress throughout the program in this area, even though there’s more work to be done.
“I think [Tuesday] when you’re out there for a little bit of practice, you’re going to see a much stronger, a much bigger, a much more explosive football team,” Jones said. “We still have a long way to go in that area, that’s why, even with the start of spring football, we still need to continue to have that growth and development from a strength and conditioning standpoint.”
Outside of the praises for Gullickson and the strength staff, Jones also discussed the number of new faces this spring, both on the coaching staff and on the field as the Vols are setting out to replace over 70 percent of their offensive production from 2016 and several key players on the defensive side of the ball.
The quarterback battle between Quinten Dormady, Jarrett Guarantano and others will take center stage in fans’ minds, but Jones said there will be competition across the board. And those looking for a quick resolution might need to be patient.
“I know the first question is going to be about the quarterback situation,” Jones said. “To me, we’re all competing. Every job is open. It’s going to be a very competitive spring. There’s no depth chart. We have an organizational chart. All that organizational chart is who will take the first rep in practice and go from there. Again, we want them to compete. No timetable has been set on a starting quarterback or any starting position. They have to earn that right. They earn that right through their performance on the field, off the field and in the meetings. That’s the thing – you compete in everything that you do.”
That competition opens on Tuesday afternoon around 4 pm ET on the Haslam practice field.