The Spring of Our Discontent: Tennessee Vols Spring Report
The Butch Jones era in Knoxville is unfolding like a Shakespearean play. Drama or tragedy, you decide. If this spring is any indication, the forthcoming acts of the Jones era are ominously approaching.
Tennessee Vols Spring Report
Tennessee fans, tired of recruiting accolades, spring hype, summer expectations, and fall disappointment, are finding it difficult to keep reading the pages of this story. This spring the feeling around Knoxville is demonstrably different than any of Jones‘ past four spring sessions. Why? Here are the major story lines — and plot twists — during the spring practice period.
Is Jones In The Final Chapter?
Much like Shakespeare’s title character Richard III, Jones is an atypical lead on the bright Knoxville stage. He doesn’t have the southern pedigree or drawl of Kirby Smart or Will Muschamp. He wasn’t hired directly from Hollywood central casting with a magazine cover smile like Tom Herman or P.J. Fleck. He doesn’t even have the evil genius demeanor of Nick Saban or Urban Meyer. And, most importantly to Tennessee fans, he doesn’t have Tennessee ties like Phillip Fulmer or Johnny Majors.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Jones’ performance hasn’t been worthy of accolades. Any reasonable person that considers where the program was when he took over and looks at where the program is now will inevitably conclude that Jones has brought Tennessee back from the depths of the worst period in the history of the program. The decade of irrelevance, as I like to call it. But Tennessee fans don’t want to be out of the depths; they want to be atop the heights. And they aren’t too concerned with how far they’ve come, they are more concerned with how much further they have to go. Is that fair to Jones? No. But when you make $3.2 million a year, fairness isn’t part of your compensation package.
Tennessee fans don’t want to be out of the depths; they want to be atop the heights. And they aren’t too concerned with how far they’ve come, they are more concerned with how much further they have to go.
So this spring finds a coach that has turned in the best two seasons in a decade firmly on the hot seat. A new university chancellor and athletic director arrived on campus this spring, and they aren’t tied to Jones. Moreover, many in the fan base have already disavowed Jones. In addition to his wins, he’s improved the program in almost every other way — academically, discipline, and facilities. But without an SEC East Championship, he still finds himself unwelcome by many in his own kingdom. Such is the life, I suppose, in the pages of the SEC.
The perceived Jones epilogue is one driving factor behind the lack of energy around the program this spring.
Another factor driving the lack of energy is the continuation of the coaching carousel. Only two of Jones’ original coaches remain on staff with him — Running Backs coach Robert Gillespie and Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpin. Just since the end of the 2016 season, the staff has a 66%+ turnover rate, with only three assistant coaches in the same position this spring as they were just four months ago.
The Volunteer offense will see its third coordinator in the past four seasons as Larry Scott moves from Tight Ends/Special Teams to the Offensive Coordinator position. With the team losing three-year starter Joshua Dobbs, their top receiver in Josh Malone, and their top two running backs from last season, Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd, Scott will have to replenish almost all of the production on the offensive side of the ball.
While the coaching carousel creates some instability and adds to the unhappiness of the fan base, there are some obvious upgrades. First, the staff is now much more balanced than when Jones arrived a little of four years ago. The balance between up-and-coming coaches and experienced coaches is more even, with two assistants having previous head coaching experience. And the addition of Brady Hoke to coach the defensive line and Charlton Warren to coach defensive backs are nice additions to the defensive staff. Vols fans were also happy to see the addition of a new Strength and Conditioning coach in Rock Gullickson.
Under the Microscope
The one questionable hire that Vols fans will be watching very closely is Mike Canales as the quarterbacks coach. And with the competition between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano to replace Joshua Dobbs, all eyes will be focused on Canales. Walt Wells, the new Offensive Line coach, will also be judged quickly as the Vols return a ton of experience on the offensive line.
The constant carousel of the coaching cast of characters has made it hard for Vols fans to stay upbeat this spring.
(Don’t) Break a Leg
Not surprisingly, the least talked about storyline of the spring has been the on-the-field action. This is not due to lack of interest — everyone would rather just focus on football. It’s largely due to a thin script. Over twenty players missed a significant portion of spring practice due to injuries. That’s over 20% of the current roster. And it also includes a minimum of seven expected starters. A year after 24 players were held out of the final spring session, at least 23 players were held out of this year’s contest/practice, as reported by Rocky Top Insider.
Who Will Replace Joshua Dobbs?
The biggest on-the-field drama this spring is the aforementioned quarterback competition. Both Jones and Scott have stated that a decision on the starting quarterback won’t be made any time soon. That means it likely won’t be made until the game plan for the Georgia Tech game is installed. And there’s a chance that Tennessee might utilize both quarterbacks at times during the season.
Both quarterbacks had good spring sessions, with Dormady having a stellar spring game in front of the fans and on television. That means the decision to start Dormady over the fan-favorite Guarantano will be more palatable to an already unhappy fan base. These two quarterbacks are probably more alike than people give them credit for. Dormady is more mobile than people think, and Guarantano is a better passer than people think. The biggest differences are Dormady’s accuracy and Guarantano’s quickness. Either way, this competition is likely to continue all the way up the end of August.
Other Spring Stand Outs
Other players of note from spring included Darrell Taylor and Quay Picou from the defensive front, Daniel Bituli at linebacker, and true freshman and early enrollee Trey Smith on the offensive line.
But as stated earlier, Tennessee fans are extremely hesitate to get their hopes in the spring. After video of Kahlil McKenzie and Jonathan Kongbo dominating at practice from the previous two springs yielded disappointment, Vols fans won’t be fooled again.
The spring session ended in fitting manner: the Orange and White Game canceled at the half due to poor weather. With dark clouds and ominous weather moving in, the few fans in attendance must have started asking themselves if this was the beginning of the final act of the Jones era in Knoxville? Will he find his fate similar to Richard, with bad luck and the manifestation of malfeasance on the field of battle?
Or is this a drama, rather than a tragedy, that still has many seasons to play out. Is Jones more the Sun of York than he is the tragic Richard?
The future is uncertain. But with the perceived disappointments of the previous two seasons following the tremendous hype of the spring sessions, Tennessee fans are having a hard time getting excited after this spring.