VOL. 131 | NO. 250 | Friday, December 16, 2016
Long Offseason Ahead for Jones
BY DAVE LINK, Knoxville Sports Correspondent
Tennessee football coach Butch Jones has plenty of winning to do next year. For starters, UT (8-4, 4-4 SEC) needs to win the Dec. 30 Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl in Nashville against Nebraska (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten).
The season began with great expectations for Butch Jones and his Tennessee Vols, who were favored to win the SEC East, advance to the SEC Championship Game and possibly contend for a national title.
(Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)
Then Jones and his staff need to win the January recruiting battles and finish strong before the Feb. 1 National Signing Day.
He also must win on the field in 2017 with a roster far different than the one seen in the Music City Bowl, a far inferior bowl than anticipated when UT was picked in the preseason to win the SEC East.
And he must win over a new chancellor and athletic director, either or both of whom could be anxious to put their own stamp on the university’s flagship athletic program.
Win or not in the Music City Bowl, Jones will enter his fifth season at UT on the hot seat.
This was supposed to be UT’s year to play for the SEC Championship. Instead, the Vols limped to .500 in the SEC with bad losses at South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
In four years, Jones is 14-18 in the SEC – 14-10 against the East Division and 0-8 against the West.
He will be likely have a short window to impress Tennessee’s new chancellor, who appears to be Beverly Davenport, interim president of the University of Cincinnati. UT trustees were poised to vote for Davenport’s appointment earlier in the week.
Davenport will play a major role in UT’s hire of a new athletic director to replace Dave Hart, who announced in August his retirement effective June 30, 2017. A top candidate is David Blackburn, vice chancellor and director of athletics at Chattanooga. Blackburn, who spent two decades in UT’s administration, could sway support for Jones within the new leadership at the university.
Aside from winning the Music City Bowl, the 2017 recruiting class is the most pressing concern for Jones – along with what staff changes will be made and when to make them.
“The big variable I think for this recruiting class is when Tennessee’s staff turnover might start, because I think we’re all expecting staff turnover this offseason,” says Ryan Callahan, who covers Tennessee football and recruiting for 247Sports and GoVols247.
“If that starts before Signing Day – do they maybe bring in some new coaches that allow them to get in the mix for some guys they currently aren’t in the running for? So there’s some variables in this that could make this a really exciting finish.
“They’ve got 25 commitments right now and still have a number of needs to fill, so I think there’s going to be some turnover within the recruiting class. But they need to finish strong, for sure. It’s a very important class. Right now I would say it’s a solid class.”
UT’s 2017 class moved to No. 10 nationally and fifth in the SEC by 247Sports with the commitment of five-star senior offensive tackle Trey Smith of University School of Jackson. The next day, UT got a commitment from three-star linebacker Shanon Reid of Dunbar High, in Fort Myers, Florida.
The 6-foot-6.5, 310-pound Smith is ranked by 247Sports as the nation’s No. 5 overall prospect at offensive tackle and the No. 3 player in Tennessee. He chose UT over Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Ole Miss.
Tennessee’s 2017 commitments thus far consist of one five-star player (Smith), four four-star players and 20 three-star players.
“Trey is going to end up being the face of this recruiting class for Tennessee,” Callahan explains. “There’s almost no question about that. He was a huge pickup for a few different reasons.
“I think the timing of it as much as anything was huge for the perception of Butch Jones and his staff and what they can do with recruiting coming off a tough end to the regular season.
“I think there were some serious doubts, at least from the fan base, about whether the negativity coming out of the season would affect recruiting, and to be able to land a five-star guy like that instate, and this state doesn’t always produce a ton of really elite talent in terms of five-star guys like Trey Smith.
“So to take advantage of that opportunity and get a guy like that and to beat out Alabama and Ohio State to do it, I think that was huge.”
Smith’s recruitment by UT has a sub-plot. His sister, Ashley Smith, was hired in July to be executive assistant to Jones with an annual salary of $50,000.
She is a 2013 graduate of UT with a degree in marketing and worked as a team manager for the Lady Vols’ basketball program for four years (2009-13) under Pat Summitt and Holly Warlick. She also worked for the NCAA before being hired by UT.
“That’s obviously an interesting element to his recruitment, but it’s the kind of a move that a lot of schools I’m sure were willing to make to get a guy like Trey Smith,” Callahan adds.
“Was (her hiring) made at least in part because of Trey? I don’t know. I can’t say for sure, but when you’re considering hiring someone like that who happens to have brother that’s a five-star, I can’t imagine that hurt her chances of getting the job.
“There’s certainly more they can do to make this a very good class. Trey Smith and Shanon Reid were a good start, but they definitely need to fill a few more needs before they can really put some of the finishing touches on this and make this the kind of class that I think fans want to see to give them the belief that 2017 can be different than 2016 turned out to be.”
It will be a season of change for UT’s roster.
There will be no bigger change than at quarterback, where current sophomore Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano will contend for the job vacated by senior Joshua Dobbs. Redshirt freshman Sheriron Jones is a third quarterback.
“I think it’s going to be a really tight competition between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano,” Callahan says. “I think both of those guys are really talented. Dormady’s gotten in some games already so he’s got kind of the leg up in experience.
“Guarantano has redshirted this season, so he’s gotten to sit back and watch and learn. I think they really like his talent, but you still don’t know what you have in him to some degree just because you haven’t seen him in a game.
“I think it’s going to be a fascinating competition.
“They both offer some different things. Dormady is kind of the more classic pocket passer, but he also can run a little bit. Guarantano is probably more of a scrambler or a guy who can use his legs as a true weapon all the time, maybe a little bit more in the mold of a Josh Dobbs, but he’s actually probably a little bit faster in terms of straight-line speed than Dobbs is.
He’s got a strong arm, much like Dormady. They’re both very strong-armed guys.”
Another offensive void: Alvin Kamara likely will declare for the 2017 NFL Draft, leaving the Vols without their top running back from this year.
Defensively, Tennessee’s biggest needs are at end with the likely departure of Derek Barnett to the NFL Draft and seniors Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis exhausting their eligibility this year.
There are also chances for new starters – or ample playing time – at linebacker and in the secondary.
“I think more on the defensive side of the ball and obviously at quarterback are where you’ll see a lot of the changes next year, a lot of the newer faces,” Callahan points out.
Jones will have to fend off questions about his staff changes and future at UT in the stretch run of recruiting in January. He’s currently working with a contract through the 2020 season.
In the SEC, anything goes when it comes to recruiting. And that includes negative recruiting by the opposition.
“I don’t think we’ll fully know how much it might be affecting Tennessee until maybe closer to signing day in January,” Callahan adds.
“We’ll see over the next several weeks how that plays out, but I do think it’s something they’re going to have to answer some questions from some people. At the same time, it doesn’t always affect recruiting all that much until there’s a real sense that the staff is on shaky ground.
“Auburn certainly was in a very similar situation going into the 2016 season and ended up having a pretty good year that kind of bought Gus Malzahn and that staff some time.
“It’s been shown in the SEC you can get out of situations like that, so I don’t think it’s gotten to the point where people feel Tennessee’s just a sinking ship, but I do think there are legitimate concerns that some teams certainly will use against Tennessee, especially as they get in some SEC recruiting battles more so in January and closer to Signing Day.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.