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VOL. 131 | NO. 240 | Friday, December 2, 2016

Something Missing in Jones’ ‘Infallible’ System

BY DAVID CLIMER, Nashville Sports Correspondent

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By now, Tennessee fans have taken enough deep breaths to come to grips with losing to Vanderbilt. They don’t like it, mind you, but they’ve accepted it. As for Butch Jones, what now?

I’ll leave it to others to gauge the heat of Jones’ seat as we weave through the postseason and into next year. Suffice it to say, the honeymoon is over.

By the time the Vols kick off in 2017, Jones will be answering to a new athletics director. He will no longer be working for the man who hired him, Dave Hart.

Next season is a crossroads. And Jones needs to prepare accordingly. If that means a coaching staff makeover, so be it.

It’s all well and good to sign high-ranked recruiting classes, but something must be done about developing those players. That is the essence of coaching on any level.

Look, I’m not writing Jones off. Despite major concerns about some of his decisions in the heat of battle on game day, I think Jones is capable of taking UT to the next level.

In order to do that, though, he must evolve and be open to change. The system he described as “infallible” when he was hired in December 2012 has proven anything but.

Yes, this Vols team was stricken with injuries, especially on defense. But not all of UT’s failings in 2016 can be blamed on injuries.

There’s something missing. There is a disconnect. It is Jones’ job to figure out what it is and fix it. His long-term future at UT hinges on it.

Jones is in uncharted territory as a head coach. He stayed only three seasons at each of his previous two stops, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. He has no track record when it comes to maintaining a program over the longer haul. That’s a concern.

There is no disputing that Jones inherited a dumpster fire from Derek Dooley. Credit him for recruiting top classes and bringing structure to the program. But it’s fair to wonder if he has plateaued as an 8-4 coach.

Of course, the temptation is to overreact. That’s what fans and sports writers do. Coaches who overreact aren’t long for the profession. You don’t make wholesale changes just for the sake of change. You must stick with your core values.

But there is always room for new ideas. Signing a bunch of four- and five-star recruits is a big deal in February, but it doesn’t matter if another coach is beating you with two-star signees in November.

Some of the qualities that make Jones such an effective recruiter has proven to be an issue in other areas.

Consider the case of Jalen Hurd. Hurd was one of Jones’ most prized recruits, and he went out of his way to try to keep the player happy, even at the expense of limiting the touches of fellow running back Alvin Kamara.

After Hurd quit the team in a snit, Kamara came into his own. He’ll play on Sundays. As for Hurd, I have my doubts. NFL general managers are going to have serious questions about a player that packs it in at midseason.

It’s no secret that most big-time recruits see college football as a means to an end. The NFL is their ultimate goal. The challenge for a coaching staff is to get those players to buy into being a part of the team while getting bigger, stronger and faster.

That’s what makes Nick Saban so great. He signs the best players and does a superior job of developing them. They play by his rules or they are jettisoned.

Where Jones is concerned, maybe it’s time for some tough love. Being champions at life, as he so famously said in describing his senior class, is one thing. But what about contending in the SEC East? Going 4-4 in the conference and finishing two games behind Florida in a bad division is unacceptable.

This is the most disappointing season at UT since 2005. Back then, the Vols were ranked No. 3 in the nation in the preseason but finished 5-6. That was the year we began to see signs of erosion in the Phillip Fulmer regime. He was fired midway through the 2008 season.

This year, UT was a consensus top 10 team in the preseason and started 5-0 before things went south. Instead of a berth in the College Football playoff, the Vols will end the season in some middling bowl.

In retrospect, though, do you really want to see this UT defense on the same field with Oklahoma or Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl?

Jones’ supposed home run hire of the offseason – defensive coordinator Bob Shoop – has turned into a liability. In their last three games, the Vols gave up 635, 740 and 608 yards. That’s an average of 661 yards per game. And we thought Sal Sunseri’s defense was unprepared in 2014.

Certainly, much of that can be blamed on the absence of so many players due to injury. The Vols hit the stretch minus their three top defensive tackles and two best linebackers.

But it goes beyond that. Often, UT failed to get lined up properly. Against Kentucky and Missouri, they were easy pickings against the run. Vanderbilt gashed them in the air as well as on the ground.

In the 45-34 conquest, last Saturday, Vanderbilt averaged 8.3 yards per play. The Commodores scored their most points in an SEC game since 1971. The 45 points were as many as Vandy scored against Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida combined.

The Vols’ inept defense may have put Vandy quarterback Kyle Shurmur on the Heisman Trophy watch list for 2017. Shurmur threw for 416 yards and two touchdowns. He looked like the second coming of Jay Cutler.

In sum, the loss to Vanderbilt and the way the second half of that game transpired should serve as a wakeup call. Something is amiss. Jones needs to fix it. Quickly.

Reach David Climer at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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