Butch Jones praised multiple young players during his press appearances on Monday at SEC Media Days.
His comments came from a specific perspective. Change.
In his fifth year, Jones is starting young “projects” he recruited years ago. Those players, like John Kelly and Darrell Taylor, are now veterans. And it’s time for them to step up.
“Well, you always step back and you do a thorough examination of your season and what could you have done better, what did you do well, how can you continue to grow and elevate, and I think the thing we have as a program is you can never have enough depth. And everything is about competitive depth and being what we call nine strong, all nine position groups,” Jones said on Monday.
That’s not a bad problem to have. This is the first time Jones has to replace elite talent in multiple positions. There are opportunities available at nearly every position.
UT’s success at the NFL Draft gives Jones some problems.
It’s a good problem to have. But it’s still a problem.
“We have to replace some very, very good football players. We had six drafted players in the first four rounds of the National Football League draft this past year. That hasn’t been done in Tennessee in 15 years,” Jones said.
Players who were previously providing depth now have their chance to break through in Jones’ fifth year. And that starts with Kelly, the Vols’ new feature back.
“I think one of the great illustrations is John Kelly,” Jones said. “John Kelly is an individual who waited his opportunity in our program, and when his opportunity came, obviously he made the most of it.”
Throughout his appearances in Hoover, Jones didn’t admit that last season was a disappointment. But his actions this offseason prove that this season is a defining one for his tenure at Tennessee.
Improvement needs to start at the defensive line, where Tennessee was inconsistent last year. According to Jones, two of his major contributors on the D-Line are ready to take a big step forward.
“Jonathan Kongbo is an individual that you play defensive end, and then when we had the rash of injuries up front, he was forced to play defensive tackle. We’ve moved him outside to his natural position. He’s had as good of an offseason as anybody. He’s about 265 pounds right now. He’s one of those individuals who’s working out day and night. So, we’re excited about him,” Jones said.
Outside of his pick-six against Missouri, Kongbo had a frustrating couple of weeks at defensive tackle last year. But his willingness to move inside shows the mentality Jones needs the most right now.
Versatility. And the willingness to change.
Darrell Taylor will change from “social media sensation” backup to starter this season. That’s a big jump for a guy who enrolled at 220 pounds. But Jones says he’s ready.
“Darrell Taylor is another young man that we thought took tremendous strides this offseason and into spring football,” Jones stated on Monday. “He’s really committed himself to the weight room and strength and conditioning area. He doesn’t even look like the same player right now.”
If you need a reminder, this is what Taylor looked like his freshman year next to Kahlil McKenzie.
One of these is not like the other (Kahlil McKenzie and Darrell Taylor) pic.twitter.com/APLljID6Sy
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) August 6, 2015
Taylor has bulked up and McKenzie has slimmed down. Defensive line coach Brady Hoke needs both of them to be major contributors this season.
Senior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers told reporters on Monday that he’s confident in his defense’s ability to improve this season.
“We have been working hard, and I feel good about it,” Vickers said. “The guys who were injured last season have been trying to get back into football shape. With Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie coming back, we are better than ever. Those guys will help out a lot this year.
“Our depth at defensive tackle is very good right now. We just have to stay healthy.”
The coach who will help keep those players healthy was also praised by Jones yesterday. First year strength coach Rock Gullickson, who also represents a major change Jones made this offseason, is helping the team make gains this summer.
“It’s been a very, very productive offseason for us, probably the most competitive offseason that we’ve had,” Jones added. “And a lot of that goes – is attributed to our players, to our leadership, but also to the addition of Rock Gullickson in the strength and conditioning area. And Rock has been a 17-year veteran in the National Football League and has really kind of changed the dynamics in that room, along with the entire strength and conditioning staff.”
On and off the field, things will look very different for Tennessee in 2017. Fans will quickly find out if these new contributors live up to the hype.