2017: Make or break for Butch Jones?

By Alex Norman

Tennessee’s football coaching staff looks a lot different today as opposed to January 1st, the day after the Music City Bowl.

Mike DeBord (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach), Willie Martinez (assistant head coach/defensive backs coach), Steve Stripling (associate head coach/defensive line coach) and Don Mahoney (offensive line coach) have departed. Stripling is still on the support staff as the Director of Football Program Development. Offensive graduate assistant Nick Sheridan also packed his bags. Sheridan worked mostly with the quarterbacks.

And last week the 6th domino fell when wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni left the program to become the new wide receivers coach for the NFL’s Chicago Bears.

Finding Azzanni’s replacement likely won’t be a lengthy process as spring practice is less than a month away.

Larry Scott was promoted to offensive coordinator and will still coach tight ends. Former Michigan coach Brady Hoke takes over as associate head coach/defensive line coach, Charlton Warren is the new defensive backs coach, Mike Canales is in for quarterbacks and Walt Wells will handle the offensive line.

That is a whole bunch of coaching staff turnover in what could be a make or break year for Vols head coach Butch Jones. Running back coach Robert Gillespie and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen are the lone holdovers from Jones’s first season at Tennessee in 2013.

The comparisons are easy to make to the five years ago, when nearly all of Derek Dooley’s assistant coaches left prior to the disastrous 2012 season. However, most of those coaches were jumping off the sinking ship for lateral moves or steps down the coaching tree. Today, most of these coaches were pushed out or re-assigned by Jones. To me, this is a sign that Jones realizes the coaching staff must improve in order for Tennessee to take the next step.

Winning 9 games the past two seasons is impressive, as is finally snapping the 11 year losing streak to rival Florida. Tennessee also has a two year winning streak over rival Georgia. They’ve won bowl games the past 3 years.

But the Vols aren’t living in the depths of the Dooley era anymore. Tennessee will have to replace a ton of talent this upcoming season, including their senior quarterback. That said, recruiting has gone well, with a fourth straight consensus top 20 class. There are enough playmakers on the roster to keep the Vols among the top half of the SEC. And if Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano emerges from the Josh Dobbs shadow at quarterback, Tennessee could win the Eastern Division for the first time since 2007.

What the coaching staff turnover does is place an ever greater importance than normal on spring practice. Those 15 practices, which start March 21 and conclude with the spring game on April 22, are the opportunities to see how these new coaches mesh with players. Once the Orange & White Game is complete, there are more limitations on the time coaches get with players until August.

We also need to see how these coaches work with each other. When Bob Shoop took over as defensive coordinator prior to the 2016 season, it was telling that Shoop didn’t bring any assistant coaches with him. A solid relationship between coaches can be near as important as that relationship between coaches and players.

Butch Jones has been criticized for conservative play calling that cost Tennessee in high profile games against Florida and Oklahoma back in 2015. But you can’t say that he isn’t willing to take some chances here.

We’ll find out together if those moves pay dividends, or if they backfire.

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