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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Five Things Vol Fans Want to See in 2015

Tennessee Vols head coach Butch Jones

(Credit of photo goes to WPSD Local 6)

An air of energy and excitement has surrounded the Tennessee football program going into 2015. Many believe 2015 to be the year Tennessee football ascends back into the national spotlight, and its easy to see why given how the Vols played at the end of 2014: winning three out of the last four regular season games and thrashing Iowa 45-28 in the TaxSlayer Bowl. And if those things weren’t reason enough for fans to feel positive about 2015, the loss of only four starters from the 2014 team is sure to add more optimism in Knoxville.

2015 has the ingredients to be a good year for Tennessee, but what would it take for 2015 to be a great year for the Vols? Here is a checklist of five things for fans to watch for in 2015:

1. Keep Josh Dobbs healthy – Quarterback Josh Dobbs proved in 2014 that he can run the kind of up-tempo offense Butch Jones wants to run at Tennessee. A new offensive coordinator in Mike DeBord likely won’t be a stumbling block to Dobbs’ development as Jones opted to keep the offensive terminology the same from 2014. Giving Dobbs the familiarity to the offensive terminology and a talented supporting cast of running backs (sophomores Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara) and deep group of wide receivers (senior Pig Howard, juniors Marquez North and Jason Croom) will give him the best chance to improve on his 2014 campaign, but there is one issue left remaining with Dobbs: injuries.

It’s true that Dobbs’ health has not be an issue during his time with the team, but Dobbs has yet to start a complete season with the Vols. Dobbs thrives on using his athleticism to make plays, and it remains to be seen how he holds up from taking hits from an entire season. Losing Dobbs for any amount of time due to injury could prove disastrous as three true-freshman quarterbacks will be behind him on the depth chart.

2. Beat Florida and Georgia – As exciting as the wins against South Carolina have been for the last two seasons, fans have had to suffer the disappointment of losing close games against SEC-East division rivals Florida and Georgia and are likely more than ready to see this change. The wins against South Carolina have been huge in terms of Tennessee’s road back to the national spotlight, and another win against the Gamecocks would be just as important in 2015, but what would be a better way to signify growth in this Tennessee football program than to snap losing streaks against Florida and Georgia, which date back to 2004 and 2009 respectively?

3. Win the SEC East – Is winning the SEC East a tall order for a team who missed on getting a bowl-game appearance just two years prior? Perhaps, but it’s also true that the SEC East is not as strong as it has been in years past. This means that Tennessee has an opportunity to make a big splash in 2015 by winning the SEC East. Doing so would likely mean beating Florida and Georgia as was mentioned in #2, but it would also likely mean beating Missouri, the SEC East division winner from the last two seasons. Tennessee’s SEC-West opponents include Alabama and Arkansas, two tough conference games. These games, and the challenge they offer, further emphasize the importance of getting SEC-East wins.

4. Land a New Years Day bowl – Making it to a bowl game was the goal for 2014, and Tennessee achieved that goal. So what would be the next step from just making it to a bowl game? How about making it to a New Years Day bowl? While it might be a stretch to say Tennessee could win the SEC Championship or go to a BCS bowl in 2015, playing in a New Years Day bowl like the Outback Bowl is certainly an attainable goal for this team. Playing in and winning this bowl would show continued growth in the program, which is a very attractive quality to high-school recruits.

5. Continue to win recruiting  If 2015 truly turns out to be the Vols’ return to the national stage, it will be due in no small part to Tennessee’s successes on the recruiting trail since Butch Jones’ arrival. Landing top-5 recruiting classes nationally has been a huge part of the Vols’ success on-the-field, but if 2015 is to be anything more than just an anomaly, continuing to win on the recruiting trail is crucial.

Tennessee’s coaching search crucial to future success

Derek Dooley’s firing comes as no surprise to anyone.  In a conference that has won six consecutive national championships, winning is critical.  Dooley’s SEC record at Tennessee, 4-19, did little to dispute that theory.

Throw in Tennessee’s financial woes in the athletic department and an unavoidable recipe for a head coaching change resulted.

Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart spoke of his department as being at a “crossroads.”  If things are as bleak as they do seem, Tennessee cannot afford to lose anymore.  That is, they cannot afford to lose in the offseason anymore.

Vol fans still try to forget the dark days known as the “Kiffin era,” which continues to bring punishments by the NCAA.  Lane Kiffin’s departure forced Tennessee to hire a new head coach near the end of the hiring window.  Most of the top coaching prospects had already made their decision and moved on.  That left the Vols to find someone who they believed could get the job done as well as bring stability back to the program.

Enter Derek Dooley.  From here, the rest of the story is obvious.  Two head coach searches have not panned out the way that the team and the fans hoped they would.

While both Kiffin and Dooley did contribute to making the program better, neither coaches in Knoxville anymore, meaning that Hart needs to find a coach who can reestablish a Tennessee program that once dominated in the SEC .

So who can be the savior of the program despite Tennessee’s financial troubles?  Ask that question in Knoxville and the most abundant answer you will get is Jon Gruden.

Gruden would certainly be that homerun hire that would not only excite the fan base, but also result in wins.  Yes Gruden would ask Tennessee to make him one of the highest-paid coaches in football, but at this stage Tennessee would find any way to make that happen.

Supposing that Gruden does not sign with Tennessee, hiring someone like Louisville head coach Charlie Strong or even trying to contact Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen could also be good ideas.  Hart wants someone with previous head coaching experience, as he mentioned in his press conference this week, and someone with proven success.

Fans of the orange and white certainly want to see Gruden as the next coach, but not landing Gruden will not be a failure for Hart.  What is important for this athletic director is to get the right hire.  For as many losses as Tennessee fans have suffered in these past three years, they will not tolerate any more.  That means that Hart must bring Big Orange Country its biggest win in years during the offseason.

Loss of Rogers increases offensive-line burden

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about the importance of Tennessee’s offensive line being the Vols’ key to success in 2012.  The issue dwarfed any concerns that the defense might have, but wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers’ indefinite suspension, which ultimately led him to transfer to Tennessee Tech, only increases the burden that the offensive line carries into the first game of the season.

Prior to the loss of Rogers, Tennessee’s passing attack promised to be one of the country’s most elite.  Now, Tennessee’s passing offense might have to settle for a downgrade to exceptional.  Even though depth is no longer an issue at wide receiver thanks to head coach Derek Dooley’s most recent recruiting class, the offense does not want to ask their freshman wide receivers to do too much.

That’s why it wouldn’t surprise if offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s first-quarter gameplan would involve a lot of running plays to counter North Carolina State’s talented secondary.  While JUCO-transfer Cordarrelle Patterson’s role in Chaney’s offense will increase due to Rogers’ departure, they want to take some pressure off Patterson and Justin Hunter, who is returning from a knee injury he suffered a year ago.  A more balanced attack in the first half would surely open up the passing game late in the game.

Early success in the running game could help open up the passing game in the second quarter and the second half.  Going to the running game early would most likely also go against how North Carolina State believes Tennessee will attack them.  Sometimes offensive coordinators like keeping teams off-guard by doing the exact opposite of what is expected of their offensive gameplan.

Headlines leading up to Friday’s game will likely discuss Rogers’ absence and the impact it will have on the game.  All eyes, however, need to be on UT’s offensive linemen.  Providing more balance in Friday’s game could truly set the tone for the rest of Tennessee’s 2012 season.

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.

Bryce Brown drafted in round seven by Eagles

When Lane Kiffin became the head coach for the Tennessee Volunteers in 2009, Big Orange Country held high hopes for their team.  They had just fired long-time head coach Phillip Fulmer and the team’s stability became an area of question.  Kiffin brought in one of Tennessee best recruiting classes at that time, including one of the top prospects coming out of high school, running back Bryce Brown.

Brown, now drafted to the Philadelphia Eagles with the 229th overall pick, went from being considered one of the elite prospects from his days in high school to sneaking in the end of the draft as his limited playing time is a huge question mark on his stock. 

When Kiffin left the program, Brown decided to part ways with the Volunteers as well.  He transfered to Kansas State where he did not get that much playing time.  Brown left Kansas State and decided to enter the NFL Draft.

Now Brown finds himself behind LeSean McCoy, one of the league’s primier running backs.

Malik Jackson finds new home

With pick number 137, former Tennessee Volunteer defensive lineman Malik Jackson was selected by the Denver Broncos. This makes another Tennessee Vol addition to the Bronco locker room as Denver signed quarterback Peyton Manning during the offseason. 

Jackson, who is 6’4 and weighs 284 pounds, will be expected to help contribute as a 3-4 defensive end.  The Broncos defense still was not at the level that head coach John Fox wanted, despite the team drafting Von Miller with the second-overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.  Jackson comes in to help a run defense that was ranked 22 in the league and allowed an average of 126.3 yards per game.

Jackson was one of the bright spots in the Tennessee Volunteers 2011 season.  Jackson brought in a total of 56 tackles and three sacks during his last season with the Vols.