KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Butch Jones says he occasionally feels as though he’s running an expansion team because the Volunteers have altered their roster so much since the end of last season.
He can only hope the Vols don’t produce the usual results of an expansion team.
Tennessee opens training camp Friday with a roster that features a 32-man recruiting class ranked among the top five in the nation by multiple services. Many newcomers will have prominent roles as the Vols attempt to end a string of four straight losing seasons.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been a roster flipped like this in the history of college football,” Jones said. “Sometimes I feel like we’re an expansion team with some first- and second-round draft choices and some veterans. That’s what makes it exciting.”
All that youth could make it tough for Tennessee to end the program’s recent slump this fall, but the Vols believe they can withstand their inexperience and take a major step forward. Tennessee went 5-7 last year in Jones’ debut season.
“Youth is not an excuse, that we’ll be able to say that’s the reason we lost the game on Saturday,” junior center Mack Crowder said. “We’re just going to have to suck it up and have to play like vets.”
Jones plans to make an Aug. 16 practice at Neyland Stadium open to the public in an attempt to accustom his young team to game-like situations. The Vols have plenty of questions to answer before their Aug. 31 season opener with Utah State.
Jones must select a starting quarterback. Senior Justin Worley made seven starts last season before undergoing season-ending thumb surgery. Sophomore Joshua Dobbs started Tennessee’s final four games and sophomore Nathan Peterman made one start.
Jones said he’d name a starter “as soon as one person steps up and takes control of the offense and takes command of the program.”
Tennessee also needs to rebuild at the line of scrimmage The Vols don’t have a single returning starter on the offensive or defensive lines. Tennessee exited spring practice with a former walk-on (Jacob Gilliam) as its first-team left tackle and a freshman (Coleman Thomas) as the No. 1 right tackle.
The Vols do appear to have more talent at the skill positions, thanks to that heralded freshman class. The Vols also believe they could have better teamwork this fall.
“I think our team chemistry, just the respect that everybody has for each other, is at an all-time high (since) I’ve been here,” Worley said. “We’ve really bonded as a team, I feel like. It sounds cliché, but I think it’s true. We’ve got a good group of seniors - not many of them - but we’ve got a good group. And I think we can take this program to another level.”
To do that, Tennessee must overcome a difficult schedule. Even before it enters Southeastern Conference play, Tennessee has three straight games against teams that won bowls and went a combined 28-12 last season: Utah State, Arkansas State and Oklahoma.
The young Vols eagerly await the challenge.
“Our patience will be tried,” Jones said. “We all venture on a journey. The great thing is our great fan base, we get to raise this football team. It’s like nurturing and having our kids grow up. We all get to be a part of that journey as (we) watch this football team mature week in and week out.”