Butch Jones

Reading between the lines at SEC Media Days: Butch Jones and competitive depth

There’s been some manufactured controversy about Tennessee Vols head coach Butch Jones saying at SEC Media Days that he didn’t think last season was a disappointment while Jashon Robertson was saying that it was. A couple of notes on that first before I get to my main point. First, it’s not like these guys were sitting in the same room arguing with each other. Jones was asked in one room and Robertson was asked in another.

Second, Jones really only said that he didn’t like the word “disappointment.” He said in the same sentence that they didn’t accomplish everything they’d set out to do, that they needed to learn from the things that went wrong, and that they could have done better. He then said that he was proud of how the team responded and that the lessons they’d learned would serve them well in the future, and then he said again that they fell short of their goals. He just doesn’t like the term “disapointment,” probably because of that book he’s apparently been reading and recommending to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.

What everyone can hopefully agree on is that there are lessons to be learned from last year, and the more important issue is exactly what lessons have been learned.

One guy (high five to The Sporting News) actually asked that question mostly in that form, and Jones’ answer sheds some light on the main thing that he thinks went wrong last year and what he’s doing about it this offseason.

“You can never have enough depth,” said Jones. “Everything is about competitive depth.”

That wasn’t the only time Jones used the phrase “competitive depth,” either. He used the same phrase when someone else asked him what he needed to do to take the proverbial next step:

“I think a lot of times, too, when you’re building a football program, your program goes through evolutions or different stages from being able to compete to having competitive depth.”

Depth was definitely on Jones’ mind. He even mentioned it in response to the question about last year being a disappointment, saying that he knew depth was going to be a challenge in the back half of the season even before it became the problem that it was.

The difference between “depth” and “competitive depth” is presumably the difference between having backups and having backups who are actually ready to play. So, a “competitive depth” problem is a combination of injuries to starters and backups who aren’t quite ready to fill in.

One of the most interesting things I heard out of Jones’ mouth today was his subtly-offered opinion that having to rely on true freshmen more than normal could have been a factor in the rash of injuries last year, that maybe they weren’t physically ready to play. I don’t know whether that’s actually true, but it’s an interesting question: Are younger guys more prone to injury? It has a certain logic to it.

Regardless, it seems that Jones thought his team’s primary problem last year was competitive depth. In other words, not just too many injuries to key guys, but not enough backups who were ready to play.

So if that’s the problem, how do you correct it?

Enter Rock Gullickson

The second most-repeated phrase of the day was this:

This has been the best offseason we’ve had.

I’m not attributing that quote to anyone in particular because I think everybody wearing orange must have said it. I heard it from Butch, and Twitter recorded it from Robertson.. I haven’t read or heard any interviews from Kendal Vickers or Emmanuel Moseley yet, but I’m fully expecting to see the same quote from them. Heck, it was probably a talking point on the plane.

It’s not uncommon for players and coaches to say something similar at media days, but again, reading between the lines provides some glimpse into why they’re saying it, and the why is important to the problem of competitive depth.

“Rock” and “Gullickson” were the first two words out of Jones’ mouth on the SEC Now program after he declared this their best offseason. (For anyone just now tuning in, Gullickson is Tennessee’s new strength and conditioning coach.) He was the first new hire that Jones mentioned in his opening remarks. Butch Jones thinks Rock Gullickson is important.

But important why? Jones mentioned several times that his players are bigger and stronger this year than last. He mentioned it on SEC Now when asked how his defensive line was going to stop the run this year. He specifically singled out Darrell Taylor as a guy who looks completely different now than he did last fall.

Reading between the lines at SEC Media Days today, then, it appears that Jones believes that the thing he needed to fix the most in the offseason was a lack of competitive depth, and that’s exactly what he’s been doing. He’s put former NFL strength coach Gullickson in charge of getting his guys healthier, bigger, and stronger, so that his team will be better.

And he says it’s been the best offseason they’ve had in five years.

We won’t know if that’s true or whether it matters until this fall, but it’s good to know that Jones has identified the issue and is well on the way to executing his plan to correct it.

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