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VOL. 41 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 17, 2017

Football staff shakeups rarely save coaching jobs

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Phillip Fulmer’s was notorious during his glory years as Tennessee’s football coach for maintaining staff stability.

Some of his assistant coaches were mediocre recruiters. So, what? Fulmer figured he could take up the slack. It was more important to him that the staff have year-to-year continuity.

Butch Jones followed that model during his first three seasons at UT. During the 2015 season, all but one member of the staff was a holdover from the group that joined Jones when he arrived as Vols coach in 2013.

Now the game has changed.

Jones’ recent hiring of Kevin Beard as wide receivers coach brought the number of new assistants to five as the Vols approach spring practice. In all, it means seven assistants are in their first or second season at UT.

This is quite a departure from Jones’ previous approach. But given the disappointments of 2016 and the pressure that is mounting for the 2017 season, Jones felt the need to make wholesale changes.

Frankly, it’s a crapshoot.

A coaching staff overhaul like this should come with a warning label attached. It takes time for all the new arrivals to get on the same page. And, if sometimes it is a last gasp for a head coach facing a crossroads season, Jones is in that position.

In 2012, Derek Dooley brought in seven new assistants – four on defense and three on offense. It was a disaster, and Dooley did not survive.

The worst move was hiring Sal Sunseri as defensive coordinator. Sunseri was considered an adequate position coach and strong recruiter but had not been a defensive coordinator since 1994 at Illinois State. His UT defense looked confused and slow.

During a telling seven-game stretch that season, the Vols gave up an average of 44.9 points, losing six times. Dooley was fired after a 41-18 defeat at Vanderbilt.

And then there was 2008.

Fulmer, known for his loyalty to assistants, made four changes, three of them due to David Cutcliffe’s departure to become head coach at Duke. Fulmer brought in Dave Clawson as offensive coordinator, and things went south in a hurry.

Those Vols scored just nine points at home against Alabama and six at South Carolina before Fulmer was fired with three games remaining in the season.

While it was obvious that UT’s overall talent level had slipped badly in the latter stages of the Fulmer era, the shuffle of assistant coaches was the last straw.

It remains to be seen how Jones’ revamped staff will perform. But we must credit the man for stepping out of his comfort zone and trying something different.

It’s no surprise that two of the changes came on the defensive side of the ball. A year earlier, Jones made headlines by hiring Bob Shoop away from Penn State as defensive coordinator. Shoop was considered one of college football’s finest defensive minds and had fielded outstanding defenses at both Vanderbilt and Penn State.

To say UT’s defensive performance in Shoop’s first season was disappointing is an understatement. The Vols gave up a whopping 449.2 yards per game. Often, UT appeared utterly defenseless.

Sure, injuries were a big part of that. At the same time, though, it was clear that some positions were not very well coached. That’s why secondary coach Willie Martinez was not retained and why defensive line coach Steve Stripling was kicked upstairs into the role of director of football program development.

That cleared the way for former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke to step in as defensive line coach and Charlton Warren to arrive as secondary and special teams coach.

Despite major personnel losses to the NFL, I fully expect the Vols to be better on defense in 2017. Shoop took a lot of criticism last season, but he didn’t get stupid overnight. Most likely, it was Shoop who lobbied for new coaching blood on his side of the ball.

The fact that Jones made the changes on the defensive staff means he has full confidence in Shoop. He should. The guy’s one of the best defensive coordinators around.

On offense, former tight ends coach Larry Scott was elevated to coordinator when Mike DeBord exited. Walt Wells, who had previously served as quality control coach, stepped in as offensive line coach, replacing Don Mahoney. Beard took the wide receivers coaching spot previously handled by Zach Azzanni, who left to join the Chicago Bears staff.

Perhaps the most noteworthy change was Jones’ overdue decision to hire a full-time quarterbacks coach, Mike Canales. Jones did not have a quarterbacks coach in his first four seasons at UT, and that was a mistake. It’s fair to wonder how much Josh Dobbs might have improved as a passer if he had received one-on-one coaching.

There are other changes. UT has a new strength and conditioning coach, Rock Gullickson. Others have been hired in off-field supporting roles.

There’s obviously is plenty of work ahead. On offense, the Vols will be breaking in a new quarterback, a new featured running back and several new receivers. It will take time.

Defensively, there are unanswered questions across the board. There doesn’t appear to be a Derek Barnett-type pass rusher on the roster. And it remains to be seen if/when defensive tackles Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle will be back at full speed following significant injuries last season.

All in all, time will tell if Jones’ staff makeover will yield the desired results. For now, though, he deserves credit for not standing pat after a disappointing 2016 season.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.