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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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.