KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s Butch Jones had the largest staff makeover of any returning coach in the SEC.
He hired a quarterbacks coach, an offensive coordinator, a receivers coach, an offensive line coach, a defensive line coach and a secondary coach. Two were promotions: Larry Scott from tight ends and special teams coordinator to offensive coordinator, and Walt Wells from quality control coach to offensive line.
For Tennessee to have a successful season, which coach has to make the biggest impact?
You certainly want your offensive coordinator to succeed. But last season, Tennessee scored more offensive touchdowns than any team in the SEC and all that got the Vols was a 4-4 SEC record and another blown opportunity to win the East Division.
You want your quarterbacks coach to get the most out of a first-year starter, either junior Quinten Dormady or redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. But last season, Josh Dobbs was arguably the most productive quarterback in the SEC and the Vols couldn’t beat South Carolina and Vanderbilt to secure the East title.
The Vols lost leading receiver Josh Malone, but Jauan Jennings, Josh Smith and an array of talented young receivers promise to provide production.
The secondary had too many holes and allowed too many big plays last season. Opponents completed only 56.2 percent of their passes against UT for 16 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The latter three numbers are respectable, yet UT loses its best defensive back, corner Cam Sutton.
While those areas are important to Tennessee’s success, the most important units are in the trenches. How often have you heard coaches and critics say the SEC is a line-of-scrimmage league.
That means either Wells or defensive line coach Brady Hoke has to do a bang-up job or Tennessee once again will fall short of a division title.
Who has to do the best job? Let’s start with Wells.
Tennessee’s offensive line was OK last season. It struggled – surprisingly – to block Appalachian State in the opener, but it was good enough to help the Vols rack up 45 points against Virginia Tech, 35 in the second-half against an outstanding Florida defense, 34 against Georgia, 38 against Texas A&M, 49 against Kentucky, 63 against Missouri, 34 against Vanderbilt and 38 against Nebraska.
From the outset, it was obvious last season’s offensive line wasn’t physical. Even then-line coach Don Mahoney acknowledged in October that he knew in August his linemen weren’t strong enough.
Much of that blame goes to Jones, who fired Dave Lawson as his strength coach and promoted Mike Szerszen. Bad mistake. In January, Jones covered his miscue by hiring Rock Gullickson from the NFL’s Rams.
Even though the offensive line struggled at times, it did have some solid performances. And it did get help from the playmaking ability of Dobbs and running backs Alvin Kamara and John Kelly.
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