VOL. 132 | NO. 199 | Friday, October 6, 2017
Hiring Larry Scott As Offensive Coordinator Big Mistake For Jones
David Climer, Nashville Sports Correspondent
If/when Butch Jones is fired at Tennessee, a number of reasons will be cited. Among them:
• A 41-0 no-show at home against Georgia
• A combined 3-11 record against rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia
University of Tennessee offensive coordinator Larry Scott during spring practice at Neyland Stadium. (Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics)
• Two losses to Vanderbilt
• Too many late-game collapses
Allow me to add another to the list: the hiring of Larry Scott as Vols offensive coordinator.
This is not intended as a slam against Scott. Far from it. It’s not his fault that Jones elevated him from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator. This is all on Butch.
The very fact that Jones made this decision is an indication of why things have gone terribly wrong at UT. It was the wrong move at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons.
From all indications, Scott is a solid position coach. He did a good job coaching tight ends and overseeing special teams after joining the Vols staff in 2016. It’s when he was elevated to offensive coordinator that he was out of his depth.
Why did Jones make the move? Maybe he thought he saw something in Scott that other college head coaches had missed.
More likely, though, he didn’t want to risk losing Scott and his talent as a recruiter.
That is telling. To Jones, recruiting is the name of the game. Every decision he makes is based on whether he thinks it will help or hurt recruiting. And that’s largely why Scott was named offensive coordinator.
It is a mistake that has caught up to Jones. When he decided not to extend the contract of Mike DeBord, UT’s offensive coordinator in 2015-16, Jones should have gone outside the staff to bring in some fresh ideas and updated offensive philosophy. By not doing so, he perpetuated a problem rather than take steps to correct it.
In short, Jones insisted on continuing to run the same offense he brought to Knoxville in 2013. It is his offense. Scott is Jones’ third offensive coordinator in five seasons at UT, yet the system and philosophy is still the same. The play-callers change but the plays don’t.
The common denominator is Jones. He believes so strongly that his offense is the right way to go that he hires coordinators who will maintain it rather than evolve it or scrap it altogether.
Granted, Scott has added a couple of new wrinkles including screen passes this season, but it is basically the same Xs and Os that Zach Azzanni oversaw in 2013.
Let’s be clear: That offense works pretty darn well when you have the right quarterback running it. The Vols put up pretty big numbers with Josh Dobbs. Without Dobbs, not so much.
Many of UT’s plays begin with some variation of the zone-read with the quarterback putting the ball in the hands of a running back and immediately reading the reaction of a defensive end or outside linebacker who is not blocked.
If the defensive player angles toward the direction the running back is headed, the quarterback then pulls the ball away and keeps it, running through the gap that is created.
That’s fine when the quarterback has the running ability of Dobbs. But it doesn’t work when the quarterback is an unwilling runner like Justin Worley in 2013 and ’14 or an ineffective runner like Quinten Dormady this season.
When you consider the overall production of quarterbacks under Jones at UT, you realize that Dobbs was the exception, not the rule. For all the big-name recruits Jones has landed at the position, only Dobbs has performed at an SEC level.
That list of underperforming quarterbacks includes Nate Peterman, whom Jones inherited off Derek Dooley’s roster. After two forgettable seasons under Jones, Peterman transferred to Pittsburgh and now is a rookie with the Buffalo Bills.
And then there is Riley Ferguson, another holdover from the Dooley regime. He is now starting at the University of Memphis.
Jones’ handling of the offensive coordinator position and his inability to develop a quarterback other than Dobbs at UT are among the reasons his job status is so tenuous.
It isn’t often that a coach who is coming off back-to-back, nine-win years enters the season with the kind of pressure Jones was facing. And Jones hasn’t done himself any favors by the way he has handled that pressure.
After more than 40 years in the sports media business, I have found that football coaches tend to do two things when their backs are to the wall:
First, they make significant changes to their coaching staffs, particularly at the coordinator positions.
Second, they blame the media.
Go back to Dooley’s ouster at UT. After the 2011 season, five assistant coaches left for various reasons. Some were fired, others sought employment elsewhere. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox made a lateral move to the University of Washington.
Dooley brought in Sal Sunseri as Wilcox’s replacement. It was a disaster. Not only was Sunseri a terrible hire, but the lack of continuity on the coaching staff created utter chaos.
To his credit, Dooley never really lashed out at the media. His press conferences remained entertaining to the very end, although he did become terse with certain reporters.
As for Jones, his major rewrite of the coaching staff after the 2016 season raised some eyebrows. In all, six assistants are either new to the staff or are coaching different positions than they did last year.
That’s a lot of change in a very short time.
As things have spiraled downward, Jones has adopted a bunker mentality. At a press briefing last week he made a reference to “fake news.”
“Sometimes the negativity is overwhelming,” he said.
It probably made Jones feel better to get a few things off his chest. Besides, the media is a deserving punching bag in the eyes of many Americans.
The fact that Jones borrowed a pet phrase from President Trump played well with some fans.
In the bigger picture, though, Jones did himself no favors. These days, those making hire/fire decisions often gauge the performance of a coach based in part on how he or she is perceived by the so-called national media.
And Jones’ comments about and to the media were largely panned around the country.
It is no great revelation that Jones has a thin skin when it comes to criticism. Previous head coaching stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati did little to prepare him for the scrutiny that comes with coaching at a place like Tennessee.
But here’s the deal: If you sign up for a job like this, with all its bells and whistles and financial rewards, you are going to be scrutinized – by your bosses, by your fan base and by the media. It’s part of the deal.
And if you’re surprised or offended by that, perhaps you’re too naïve to function effectively in your position.
Reach David Climer at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @DavidClimer.