KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee coach Butch Jones has enjoyed an extended honeymoon period in which he has re-energized the fan base and excited recruits since his December arrival.
Now comes the hard part.
Tennessee opens preseason camp Friday with an uncertain quarterback situation, an inexperienced receiving corps and a defense that statistically ranked among the worst in school history last year.
"It's easy to be excited right now," Jones said. "What happens when you go through the long days of training camp and every day seems the same and you're hitting each other? That's when your team is born. That's when your toughness is born. That's really where your leadership is born."
Jones has won raves from athletic director Dave Hart for energizing the campus and engaging with the fan base, which includes having an Aug. 17 practice open to the public. He has put together one of the top 2014 recruiting classes.
Of course, he also hasn't coached in a game yet.
Five of Tennessee's first eight games are against teams ranked ninth or higher in last year's final Top 25: No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Oregon, No. 5 Georgia, No. 8 South Carolina and No. 9 Florida. Tennessee has posted three straight losing seasons and was picked by the Southeastern Conference media to finish fifth out of seven teams in the Eastern Division.
"Butch has created a lot of excitement, but he'll be the first to say that you have to go on the field and come away with some success," said Hart, a former Florida State athletic director. "Bobby Bowden used to tell me all the time when we were playing golf in the summer, 'You know, Dave, this would be a great job if you just didn't have to play the games.' We've got to play the games. But I'm excited. I'm excited for the opening of our football season."
That excitement extends to the players. They say they've fed off Jones' energy.
"Everybody is a big bucket of gasoline is the way I feel about it," senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp said. "Coach Jones is that match, that spark that's going to make the whole barrel of gasoline explode. That's what we need. That's what he's pretty much given us."
The Volunteers believe they're not that far away from contending again. They insist they were better than their 5-7 record suggested last season.
"Rather than going 5-7, we could have at least won 10 games last year," senior defensive end Corey Miller said. "It's all about finishing in the fourth quarter. There are games that we should have finished, that we know we should have finished."
Tennessee lost several playmakers from last year's team.
The Vols must find a new quarterback to replace Tyler Bray, who threw for 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns last year. Junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman are listed as co-starters on the depth chart, though true freshmen Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson also will compete for the job.
Tennessee's receiving corps lost first-round draft pick Cordarrelle Patterson and second-round selection Justin Hunter.
"It's not a secret," Jones said. "Are we going to be the most talented team this year? No, we're not. We all understand that. But talent doesn't win championships. Teams win championships."
The new coaching staff offered plenty of team-building activities in an attempt to build the type of chemistry that might prevent fourth-quarter breakdowns.
Each freshman was assigned an upperclassman who would serve as his "big brother" on the team. The players went bowling together twice a week. They also went on a whitewater rafting trip, and junior linebacker A.J. Johnson joked that he showed off his improved tackling technique by knocking 351-pound defensive tackle Daniel McCullers off his raft.
"When the fourth quarter rolls around, when workouts get tough and all that stuff, if you feel like that's your brother, you just don't want to let him down," junior safety Brian Randolph said. "Sometimes on the team (last year), instead of brothers, we had like a father/son relationship and sometimes we didn't click as much."
Jones has been through this a couple of times before, though the situations weren't quite the same.
He inherited winning teams at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Jones has a rebuilding situation on his hands at Tennessee, but he says the Vols have bought into his staff's recommendations even more quickly than at his last two stops.
"They have answered every challenge to date," Jones said.
Much bigger challenges are on the way.
NOTES: Jones said that senior safety Eric Gordon is no longer with the team. Gordon hadn't participated in most of spring practice due to off-field issues and wasn't included in the team's media guide. "The big thing for Eric is he's really close to graduation," Jones said. "We're going to do everything we can to support Eric." ... Running back Jabo Lee is the only player from Tennessee's 2013 signing class who didn't end up on campus. Lee was released from his letter of intent and plans to play elsewhere. ... The biggest surprise on the depth chart has sophomore LaDarrell McNeil ahead of senior Byron Moore at strong safety. Moore made 86 tackles and tied for the SEC lead with five interceptions last season.