Time to Turn Down the Flame on Jones’ Hot Seat

By David Climer

When it comes to Butch Jones and the recent NFL Draft, it’s a matter of perspective.

Remember, no Tennessee Vols were drafted in the previous two years, which is a reflection on the recruiting by Jones’ predecessor, Derek Dooley. The fact that Tennessee had six players picked this time around – all in the first four rounds – speaks volumes, to wit:

Wow, Jones has certainly upgraded UT’s talent level.

Man, Jones sure did waste some great talent in 2016.

It’s a double-edged sword. There is no question Jones has brought in a number of quality players through laborious recruiting. But it also is fair to criticize the development and performance of those players under Jones.

That’s one of the reasons so many say they believe Jones is at a crossroads as UT coach. With John Currie now installed as athletics director, it is possible Jones must achieve a certain level of success this season or his time at Tennessee is done.

I understand the criticism of Jones. It is merited, at least in some areas.

But those who place him squarely on the hot seat are ignoring some obvious facts. While player development and in-game decisions can and should be questioned, let’s not get carried away. I, for one, am willing to give Jones the benefit of the doubt. In short, I don’t think he should be on the hot seat.

Fans and many in the media tend to have short-term memories. They forget exactly where this program stood when Jones arrived in December 2012. The Vols were coming off three consecutive losing seasons under Dooley. Dating back to Phillip Fulmer’s final season in 2008, UT was 12-28 in SEC games.

The roster was a wreck.

Due to the attrition of Lane Kiffin’s recruits and some haphazard recruiting by Dooley (he signed only 12 in-state players among his 76 recruits in 2010-12, thanks in part to poor networking with high school coaches), the talent level was at low ebb. Overall team speed was horribly lacking, especially in a conference where speed kills.

Three of the six Vols that were drafted were part of Jones’ first recruiting class in 2013 – defensive back Cameron Sutton, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Two others – defensive end Derek Barnett and wide receiver Josh Malone – were big-time prospects in Jones’ blockbuster 2014 recruiting class. The other draftee was running back Alvin Kamara, a junior college transfer in 2015.

And there are more where that came from. Other players from the 2014 recruiting class are likely draft picks next year, particularly offensive lineman Jashon Robertson and defensive back Todd Kelly Jr. More recent signees figure to be on the NFL radar when their time comes.

Has Jones made mistakes in recruiting? Absolutely.

Rivals.com reports there are three five-star prospects in the state of Tennessee in the most recent recruiting class. None of the three signed with the Vols. Wide receiver Tee Higgins of Oak Ridge is bound for Clemson. Linebacker Jacob Phillips of Nashville and defensive back JaCoby Stevens of Murfreesboro signed with LSU.

Likewise, there are valid concerns about what happened on the field in 2016. After building momentum in Jones’ first three seasons, the Vols took a step back. They underachieved. The SEC East was there for the taking, especially after UT’s victories over Florida and Georgia.

After the miracle finish at Georgia, the Vols lost three in a row. They closed the regular season with a 45-34 loss at Vanderbilt.

But let’s not forget what happened to the UT defense. Only four defensive players that started the opener against Appalachian State started against Vanderbilt. That’s remarkable attrition, and it helps explain why the Vols were so pitiful on defense down the stretch.

“I’ve never been through a season like this, where the injuries just continue to mount up,” Jones said at the time. “But that’s the game of football and that’s recruiting and that’s development.”

Worrisome, too, was Jones’ handling of the situation with junior running back Jalen Hurd.

First, he continued to use Hurd as a workhorse in the backfield, which limited the touches for Kamara. Beyond that, something was amiss. Hurd was on his way to becoming UT’s all-time leading rusher when he quit the team at midseason.

He’s now headed to Baylor, where he must sit out a season as a transfer as he attempts to make the transition from running back to wide receiver.

Why did Jones let it come to that?

For one thing, he showed too much loyalty to Hurd, who was a featured recruit in the class of 2014. Also, Jones should have intervened earlier when it was clear that Hurd was distancing himself from his teammates.

Sometimes Jones is his own worst enemy, especially when he opens his mouth. He is not alone among coaches who lean heavily on clichés when they talk to the media or to booster groups. But using phrases like “championship of life” and “five-star heart” makes you an easy target for jokes and criticism.

So, yes, there are problems with Jones’ performance as Vols coach. But to put him on a hot seat is to overlook how far the UT program has come since his arrival. Fulmer let things slide badly toward the end of what previously had been a very successful tenure. Kiffin was a one-and-done mistake. Dooley was a disaster.

Numbers don’t lie. Here is the number of UT victories over the last nine seasons, compiled by four different head coaches: 5, 7, 6, 5, 5, 5, 7, 9, 9. The last four of those victory totals belong to Jones.

So, put down the torches and pitchforks. He isn’t perfect, but Butch Jones has done his part to get Tennessee football back up and running. And he deserves more time to finish the job.

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