Tennessee Vols: Is Criticism of Butch Jones Justified?

 

Just one season into Tennessee Vols head coach Butch Jones time in Knoxville gave Big Orange Country reasons to be optimistic about the future. Instead of not being in the conversation for the nation’s top high school recruits, these highly touted players suddenly gave serious consideration to wearing orange and white for their college careers. And after Tennessee knocked off then No. 11 South Carolina on a game-winning field goal in Knoxville, it was easy to see why the future looked so bright.

Despite the evidence of early progress, both fans and the national media understood the rebuild would take time. However, both pegged the 2016 season as the year where the culmination of Tennessee’s recruiting efforts, wins and experience would bring the Vols their first SEC East title since 2007.

As we all witnessed, the Vols fell short of that goal in 2016.

After Jauan Jennings’ incredible hail mary reception to beat Georgia, fate itself seemed to root for Tennessee. Fate again intervened on Tennessee’s behalf against Texas A&M when Aggies running back Trayveon Williams broke through the middle of the Tennessee defense and charged through for what looked like an inevitable 70-yard game-winning touchdown.

Vols cornerback Malik Foreman had other ideas.

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Vols’ offensive line will carry this year’s burden

2012’s arrival did not just bring about the change of a new year, it also seemed to initiate a year of change for the Tennessee Vols.  Several assistant coaches, not to mention former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, accepted offers elsewhere and left the Vols with many questions to answer in the upcoming season.  Change, as it always does, creates both excitement and anxiety in the fans.

The 2012 season holds that same excitement and anxiety for Big Orange Country.  Great attention will be paid to new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and his defense, and the attention is well-deserved.  Tennessee’s defense found it difficult to play at a high level for four quarters a year ago, which many attributed to Tennessee’s youth and inexperience.

Among one of the other changes to Tennessee’s coaching staff was the addition of Sam Pittman, the Vols’ new offensive line coach.  Pittman, who coached the North Carolina Tarheels offensive line in 2011, faces the challenge of taking a group, who struggled against the NFL-talented defensive squads of Alabama and LSU, and turn them into a reliable group that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney can rely on to generate a running game.

A change in defensive coordinator and offensive line coach might make any fan believe that the former will play a larger role in a team’s performance.  While Tennessee’s defensive play will help determine how many wins the Vols can get, the offensive line play will lay the foundation for success on both sides of the ball.

In fact, it is because of Sunseri’s arrival that Tennessee’s offensive line must play better.  Regardless of the amount of time the defense takes in transitioning into Sunseri’s system, the presence of a running game means one thing: more time of possession for Tennessee.  That means that the offense takes the pressure off of the defense and it keeps junior quarterback Tyler Bray and his arsenal of receivers on the field.

If the transition into Sunseri’s system takes more time, then Tennessee’s offensive line can help give those guys a break.  If the transition does not take that long, then an improved defense and offensive line means Tennessee makes a stronger argument to win the SEC East.

Without improved play from the offensive line, however, the defensive-transition issue becomes irrelevant.  Should Tennessee’s offense become plagued with three-and-out’s against Florida, Alabama or Georgia, the defense stays on the field longer.  The longer this goes on in one season, the more tired a defense can become overall.  Tennessee wants their defense to make plays and contribute to their success, but at this stage they do not want to ask the defense to do too much.

Paying attention to Tennessee’s defense makes sense as the new defensive coordinator poses a huge question mark for this team in 2012.  Make no mistake about it though, Tennessee’s offensive line will control the team’s destiny this season.