KNOXVILLE — It may have been just the first of many practices, in helmets and shorts nearly six months before the first game.
That made the stage no less larger for Riyahd Jones.
Since leaving Georgia Southern after his freshman season in 2011, the cornerback had his sights set on big-time college football, and Tennessee's first spring practice Saturday was the realization of what he called his dream.
"My first practice, I was pretty nervous," Jones said after Tuesday morning's session, the team's second of the spring, "because this is what I've been wanting since I was in high school. The jitterbugs kicked in, but as practice went on, they kind of left. Today was a much better day."
The Volunteers hope many more better days are in store for the junior college transfer.
Shortly after he took the Tennessee job in early December, coach Butch Jones identified an immediate need at corner, a position from which the Vols were losing three players from last season. Two weeks later, they landed Riyahd Jones, who spent last season at Garden City Community College in Kansas. He enrolled and arrived on campus in early January.
"He's still going through his growing pains," Coach Jones said Tuesday, "but you can see the corner skill set that he has. He has corner skills, and we fully anticipate him helping us this year."
That's the typical expectation for junior college players, but it's not always that easy. The transition can be tricky for players to manage, and each case is different. It's been that way at Tennessee in recent years with transfers such as defensive linemen Mo Couch, Daniel McCullers and Darrington Sentimore and defensive backs Izauea Lanier and Byron Moore.
Coach Jones signed six junior college players in three years while he was at Cincinnati. In their second year in the program in 2012, linebacker Greg Blair led the Bearcats in tackles and Damon Julian was third among receivers in catches and yards. Defensive lineman Elijah Shuler played in 10 games last season after arriving in 2012.
"Every individual's different," the coach said. "Each individual develops differently and kind of on their own time frame a little bit. Obviously we try to expedite the process, but that's why you try to really, really dig into with the junior college players, because when you bring a junior college player in, you're bringing them in for immediate help.
"We did our due diligence [on Riyahd Jones], and he's done a great job. Again, we're throwing so much at him. He's digesting everything from football to academics as well."
Yet the 6-foot, 186-pound Jones chose to take the junior college route to Tennessee, which is unusual. He credited his coaches at Georgia Southern and Garden City for helping him develop into a player who could get an opportunity in the SEC. Now he's trying to take advantage of it with the Vols and secondary coach Willie Martinez.
"He's just redefining what I already had and implementing new things to make me a better corner," the player said. "He's a fiery coach, but he's also a great teacher. On the field, he's loud, but in the meeting rooms he's teaching like [it's] a professional class.
"He's drawing it up, running the film, running it back, taking us to the field, walking through it, and it's been a great thing and I'm glad to be here."
The Vols' competition at corner is fairly wide open, with incumbent starter Justin Coleman, sophomore Dan Gray, fifth-year senior Naz Oliver and Jones rotating reps this spring.
Jones said his goals for the next 13 practices are improving, developing a trust with the new coaches and stating his case to be a starter.
"I'm coming in and watching extra film, trying to do anything I can just to get ahead of the game," he said. "When you get to a place like this, everybody's good at their position, so you've got to do something to separate yourself, whether it's lifting extra, backpedaling extra, watching extra film -- whatever you've got to work on. The biggest thing with me is working on my smarts and becoming a smarter corner, so that's why I watch a lot of film.
"I didn't come here to just be a backup. I came here to pursue my dreams. Everybody's getting a lot of reps, and you've got the perfect opportunity to prove yourself."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...