KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee coach Butch Jones acknowledges he is concerned about the off-field incidents involving his football team over the last year.
"Anytime you have (those types of) events and circumstances, it's always a concern," Jones said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's like raising your own children. You try to educate. ... The educational process is at the forefront of our football program."
Jones said he has hour-long team sessions each Wednesday that focus on how a "one-second decision or choice can change your life for the rest of your life."
Despite the discussions, some players from the 2014 team have faced rape or assault allegations.
Tennessee's most notable off-field issue involved former linebacker A.J. Johnson and suspended defensive back Michael Williams, who were indicted this month on aggravated rape charges. Both were suspended in November, the day before they were named as subjects of a rape investigation. Johnson has since graduated and completed his eligibility.
Jones also dismissed running back Treyvon Paulk from the team in September following a police report that he hit a woman in the mouth at a party, though he wasn't arrested because the woman declined to press charges. Jones said "there's a possibility" Paulk eventually could return to the team.
Former defensive back Riyahd Jones was named this month as a suspect in an ongoing rape investigation in which no arrests have been made or charges have been filed, though the woman said the incident happened after Jones already had left the team.
Jones said he often discusses personal growth, social issues and current events with his players. He often brings in guest speakers to discuss these issues.
The coach believes what he does gets through to the majority of his players.
Tennessee's scholarship football players posted a 2.77 grade point average in the fall semester, which represented their highest mark since the school began tracking that on a sport-by-sport basis in 2003. Jones also noted the increased amount of community service projects undertaken by his players over the last year.
"There are many good things that are going on here," Jones said. "Let's talk about the (2.77) GPA while we're at it. Let's talk about the 15-plus college graduates who played in the bowl game and experienced their first bowl game. We're winning off the field."
On the field, Tennessee's late surge in 2014 has raised expectations for a program that just ended a string of four straight losing seasons.
"If you're a competitor, you want those (expectations) placed upon you," Jones said.
Tennessee won four of its final five games to finish 7-6 and followed that up by signing a second consecutive recruiting class ranked among the nation's top five by multiple services. The Volunteers played 23 true freshmen, the most of any Football Bowl Subdivision program. Tennessee started only one senior on offense and two seniors on defense in a 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl triumph over Iowa.
Jones appreciates the focus Tennessee's players have shown thus far in the offseason. Jones mentioned linebackers Curt Maggitt and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, quarterback Joshua Dobbs, defensive tackle Danny O'Brien, cornerback Cam Sutton and safety Todd Kelly Jr. as emerging leaders.
"There is a sense of confidence," Jones said. "This football team learned how to win. To me, that was the biggest obstacle. The most challenging thing in developing a program is actually learning how to win, and I thought we took monumental strides in learning how to win."
Depth remains an issue.
Dobbs is the only scholarship quarterback returning from the 2014 roster, and Tennessee has only three scholarship running backs. Jones said Tennessee still has "a long ways to go" in building the type of program he wants.
Since the end of the 2014 regular season, wide receivers Drae Bowles and Vic Wharton, tight end Daniel Helm, defensive linemen Dewayne Hendrix and Jaylen Miller, defensive backs Riyahd Jones and D'Andre Payne, linebacker Justin King, quarterback Nathan Peterman and running back Derrell Scott have left the team and defensive lineman Michael Sawyers has been dismissed from the team. Jones said wide receiver Ryan Jenkins also has been granted his release, though Jenkins' return hasn't been completely ruled out.
"I think if you look around the country, unfortunately it's becoming the norm," Jones said. "Each individual has different circumstances for leaving. We thank them for being part of our family, and if we can help them moving forward, we'll help them."