When it comes to offense, Butch Jones thinks he knows what’s best for the Tennessee Vols.
And he’s willing to bet his job on it.
By elevating Larry Scott from tight ends coach/special teams coordinator to offensive coordinator, Jones is staying the course. And it’s his own course.
While Scott brings his own personality and will make tweaks to the system, UT’s offense will not be radically different. This will still be the offensive scheme Jones brought to Knoxville when he was hired in December 2012.
That says a lot about Jones and his belief in his offensive system. He still thinks his version of the spread is the right way to attack SEC defenses. The play-caller may change but the system remains the same.
Jones certainly had other options. He could have retained Mike DeBord by extending his contract. He could have gone completely outside the box and hired Mark Helfrich, former head coach at Oregon, or someone else to totally revamp Tennessee’s offensive scheme.
Instead, Jones made it an inside job by hiring Scott, who has not been the play-caller of record since he coached in high school more than a decade ago. Jones feels that strongly about Scott. He also feels that strongly about the basics of the offense the Vols have run on Jones’ watch over the last four seasons.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. UT put up big offensive numbers last season, which was DeBord’s second year as offensive coordinator. They scored 34 or more points in nine games.
It should be noted that while DeBord called the plays, Scott worked closely with him. He certainly had more input on the Vols’ offense than your typical position coach.
“One of the first things is to make sure everybody understands it’s Tennessee’s offense,” Scott says.
“We are looking to take the personnel that we have and evaluate it top to bottom and always look at our strengths and always play to those strengths and do the best we can to put ourselves on a week-by-week basis in a position to win.
“Whether that makes it look a little different, some of it may look the same – that is all left out there to be determined over time.”
Sure, UT put up impressive offensive stats in 2016. But let’s not get carried away. There were games where the Vols couldn’t get out of their own way. They scored only 13 points in regulation in the opener against Appalachian State.
Certainly, bad defense was the biggest factor in all four of UT’s losses but the offense certainly contributed to those defeats. The Vols committed seven turnovers at Texas A&M. They managed only 163 yards in the blowout loss to Alabama. They followed that with three turnovers and terrible execution at South Carolina. They scored only three second-half points in the loss at Vanderbilt.
It was too often feast or famine for the Vols offense in 2016. That must change.
One thing Scott needs to bring is a more diversified downfield passing game. In the last four seasons, the Vols have relied too heavily on a lateral passing game. They have used a lot of short throws to the perimeter, trusting that wide receivers could catch the ball and then outmaneuver a defender. UT needs more combination routes that stretch the secondary.
It would also help if the Vols did a better job of developing talent at wide receiver. Come to think of it, it would help if the Vols did a better job of developing talent at all positions.
Scott knows he has a big job ahead. Among others, UT lost quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Josh Malone. It is up to Scott to find replacements.
Obviously, finding the right quarterback is Job 1. Dobbs is a tough act to follow. He made many, many plays with his legs and improved significantly as a passer in his final two seasons. There were times when he seemed to single-handedly make a play to bail out the Vols.
With Dobbs gone, junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano will fight it out at spring practice and perhaps into preseason training camp.
It should help that Jones finally relented and hired a quarterback coach, Mike Canales. Previously, DeBord held the title offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach.
If Scott is as good at designing and calling plays as he is at recruiting, the Vols are in business. UT’s latest recruiting class includes seven players from Florida, which is Scott’s territory. That group includes defensive tackle Kivon Bennett from Fort Lauderdale, a Rivals.com four-star prospect.
Scott, a Florida native who served as Miami’s interim head coach for six games in 2015, understands that recruiting is the life’s blood of any program.
“I love to recruit,” he says. “It’s more exciting to touch more areas, get in more homes and be around more kids, families and high school coaches – just continue to build relationships that make recruiting go. I’m fired up about it.”
That approach should serve him and the Vols well over the next few months. As offensive coordinator, Scott now will branch out into other parts of the country. Look for him to spend plenty of time working high school talent in Tennessee since the in-state class of 2018 is particularly strong and deep.
“The No. 1 thing you want in a kid is that he wants to be there, and if he wants to be there then you have the chance to develop him and make him really good,” Scott explains.
In retrospect, it is fair to wonder how Scott’s ability as a recruiter factored into his elevation into the offensive coordinator role. Jones knew he might not have been able to hang onto Scott if he didn’t give him a significant promotion. Given Scott’s impact as a recruiter on this signing class, it was important to keep him around.
Now the job is his. And how well Scott performs as a first-time college offensive coordinator will have a dramatic impact on what looks to be a crossroads season for the man who hired him.
Reach David Climer at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DavidClimer.