Jones’ Blind Spot: Even 5-Stars Need Coaching

By David Climer

When he was hired as Tennessee’s football coach in December 2012, Butch Jones used the term “infallible” to describe the system he was bringing to Knoxville.

QB coach Mike Canales, Butch Jones and running backs coach Robert Gillespie during last week’s game against South Carolina. (Jerry Denham | The Ledger)

Even if we give Jones the benefit of the doubt on the system he has attempted to install at UT, it’s clear that the head coach is far from infallible. A 3-3 record in Year 5 – with all three losses to SEC East competition, no less – is reflective of a coach who isn’t getting the job done.

Many Vols fans have lost confidence in Jones. It’s fair to wonder if the members of the team feel the same way. In the last handful of games – and particularly in back-to-back losses to Georgia and South Carolina – the Vols look aimless and disorganized.

And as if things weren’t bad enough, here comes Alabama.

This is frying pan/fire stuff for the Vols in general and Jones in particular.

Hard to believe, but it was only two years ago that UT went into Bryant-Denny Stadium and took a 14-13 lead with 5:49 remaining in the game against the eventual national champion team before ultimately losing 19-14.

Some of us left the press box that day believing the Vols program was in the process of regaining national prominence, thanks in large part to Jones.

Now? Not so much. The trend line is headed in the opposite direction. Looking back, the near-miss against Alabama in 2015 and the six consecutive wins that followed are as good as it has gotten for Jones at UT. The 2016 Vols underachieved. And I don’t know what to make of the current team.

This isn’t going to end well for Jones. Barring a midseason turnaround, which does not appear likely, the best things he has going for him are back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2015-16 and a relatively new athletics director in John Currie, who might be reluctant to pull the trigger.

Otherwise, the prognosis is bleak. Offensively, the Vols have not scored a touchdown in 10 quarters, dating back to halftime of that horrible 17-13 win over UMass.

Neither Quinten Dormady nor Jarrett Guarantano has played up to SEC standards at quarterback. The offensive line is getting pushed around. Play-calling is predictable. The Vols have failed to establish a downfield threat in the air to take pressure off the running game.

Although the defense has improved markedly from the historically bad performance in the season opener against Georgia Tech, lack of quality depth and fatigue are taking a toll. The Vols are starting to run out of able bodies at key positions.

Those four- and five-star recruits have lost their luster.

Meanwhile, Jones hasn’t done himself any favors. His reference to “leadership reps” during the open date after the Georgia debacle was just the latest silly statement that was ripe for lampooning by the national media. Next time, coach, stick with one of your tired clichés instead of making up a new one.

Jones’ only significant accomplishment of the last handful of weeks was talking Dormady off the ledge after the decision was made to start Guarantano against South Carolina. There were reports that Dormady, who was regressing instead of improving after starting the first five games of the season, was considering dropping off the team and preparing to transfer.

As it turned out, Dormady stuck around and played two snaps against South Carolina, stepping in when Guarantano’s helmet was twice knocked off his head.

As for Guarantano, he played reasonably well early in the game when John Kelly was getting consistent yards in the running game. But South Carolina adjusted its defense to shut down Kelly, and the UT offense stalled until a last-gasp drive got the Vols in position to score what would have been the winning touchdown.

But, as usual in this exasperating season, UT crapped out.

Losses like that leave a mark.

In his first three seasons at UT, the biggest criticism of Jones was that he won the games he was supposed to win but couldn’t close the deal against favored teams. Now Jones is losing to underdogs. The South Carolina defeat falls under that heading.

South Carolina has had a significant role in UT coaching transitions. In 1992, John Majors was fired during the open date that followed a 24-23 loss at South Carolina – the Vols’ third straight loss that season after a 5-0 start.

UT fell to 3-6 with an ugly 27-6 defeat by the Gamecocks in 2008, and Phillip Fulmer was notified of his ouster two days later.

They say history is a great teacher. Given his current uncertain status, Jones should schedule a meeting with Fulmer, who now works as a special adviser to the UT president. Although it may be too late, Fulmer could provide a few pointers.

Yes, Fulmer let things slip during the latter part of his Tennessee tenure, but prior to that he was responsible for the longest sustained period of success in the modern history of UT football. The man knew how to run a football program. And Jones could learn from him.

Here’s an example: In the majority of his assistant coach hirings or promotions involving assistants, Jones has erred on the side of recruiting rather than Xs and Os and/or player development. His approach seems to be that if you sign enough talented players, any decent position coach can get them aimed in the right direction.

That’s why Larry Scott was promoted from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator last offseason even though Scott hadn’t called a play since coaching high school ball a decade earlier. Jones didn’t want to risk losing Scott, a productive recruiter, to another program. It was a mistake.

Fulmer knew better. When he was at the height of his Hall of Fame coaching tenure, Fulmer made every meaningful decision with one question in mind: How will this affect recruiting?

But even with his recruit-first approach, Fulmer knew that he had to have assistants who were sound coaches.

Fulmer’s two best assistants – offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe and defensive coordinator John Chavis – did not pile up commitments on an annual basis. Cutcliffe was good when it came to identifying and swaying quarterbacks. Otherwise, he was just a decent recruiter. And Chavis was a terrible recruiter.

But you know what? Both Cutcliffe and Chavis made up for it with their football acumens and their ability to teach the game and motivate players. The same can be said for other members of Fulmer’s staffs.

Yes, he always had a couple of stud recruiters aboard, but the majority of his assistants were blue-collar coaches. Fulmer filled any void by being a superior deal-closer when it came to recruiting.

Like I said, it may be too late for Jones to correct things. His impressive list of 2018 commitments erodes with each loss. So, does his job security.

Reach David Climer at and on Twitter @DavidClimer.