Tennessee and the case for cautious optimism in 2015; Punt, Pass & Pork
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—If Butch Jones had a more perverse sense of humor, he would have called Jerry Jones (no relation) and asked the Dallas Cowboys’ owner to send his receivers coach to Tennessee’s pro day last week. That way, former Volunteers coach Derek Dooley would have been there to explain the dearth of NFL-level talent coming out of the program this year to his NFL colleagues. After all, the blame for that deficiency falls squarely on Dooley's shoulders. As it was, the staffers charged with cleaning up the mess Dooley made were left to apologize for how little they had to offer.
Of course, if any of those scouts stayed to watch Tennessee’s spring practice, then they didn’t waste a trip. They’ll be back in Knoxville in the coming years and will have plenty of draftable players to evaluate. Those NFL-caliber players are young, and there aren’t yet as many as Jones would prefer. The Volunteers may have won four of their final five games in 2014. They may be a trendy preseason pick to win the SEC East this fall. But inside the program, the prevailing belief is that sort of contention might still be a year away. Tennessee doesn’t lack talent anymore. Its first 22 stacks up favorably against almost anyone’s. But rarely do major college football teams make it through a season without a few injuries. A lucky Vols group could stay healthy enough to compete for the East title, but a couple of injuries could expose the lack of depth Jones and his staff have tried so hard to erase.
This becomes obvious at Tennessee’s practices when only five healthy defensive linemen participate. Or when Jones sees that he has two backs (Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara) ready to carry the ball in a game. Or when the sophomore who finished last season as the starting right tackle gets arrested for selling what turned out to be a stolen Xbox. Or when Jones imagines how the offense might look if one or two of his talented receivers went down, as four did at the end of last year. “It’s a snapshot of where we’re at in our football program,” Jones said. “We’ve had two very, very solid, very good recruiting classes back to back, but we’re still not there yet from a competitive depth standpoint. We’re still a couple recruiting classes away.”
Here’s the potential problem: The bulk of Tennessee’s fan base may not share Jones’ cautious optimism. Oh, the optimism is shared. It’s the cautious part that isn’t. For the first time since a series of unfortunate athletic department events sent a once-proud program spiraling, the Vols seem on the verge of fielding a real winner in football.
That could erase the pain of the past few years of gridiron irrelevance caused by Lane Kiffin’s one-year stint and Dooley's apathetic recruiting. (That’s probably too nice. The guy signed zero offensive linemen in 2012. That’s just shy of sabotage.) A successful football campaign could make everyone forget the comedy of errors in men’s basketball that began when Bruce Pearl lied to an NCAA investigator about the attendees of a cookout—if he’d just admitted Aaron Craft had been there, Pearl would likely still be Tennessee’s coach—and reached its climax Friday morning when athletic director Dave Hart fired Donnie Tyndall. Hart had hired Tyndall in spite of a history of NCAA trouble two stops ago at Morehead State. Hart had to jettison Tyndall because of potential NCAA trouble in his previous stop at Southern Miss. Now Tennessee seeks its fourth basketball coach since ’11.
An SEC East title in football would make everyone forget the issues with the men’s basketball program, because as long as the Tennessee football and women’s basketball teams are winning, any other success is gravy. The women’s hoops team will face Maryland on Monday night for a slot in the Final Four. It’s doing its part. Now Jones’s team must follow suit.
But the hard truth is Tennessee will need good fortune to live up to its vast football potential in 2015. And hopefully the faithful will remain patient with Jones if Team 119 isn’t the one that puts the program back in the double-digit win club. The Vols’ fan base craves a winner. That group was more spoiled than it realized when Phillip Fulmer went 45-5 from 1995-98, and that unsustainable level of success skewed the appreciation for Tennessee’s success in Fulmer’s final years with the team. Fulmer probably needed to go when then-AD Mike Hamilton fired him, and if Tennessee had hired a capable successor, the Vols might have remained relevant in the SEC. Instead, Kiffin’s quick exit and the Dooley’s subsequent hiring caused the program to crater.
Jones and his staff have done the work to push Tennessee upward in the East. Young stars such as Hurd and defensive end Derek Barnett—both true sophomores—can make the Vols competitive, but the hole was much deeper when Jones arrived than anyone cared to admit. Last week’s pro day simply reinforced that, even though the outside perception is that Tennessee is finally ready to compete for titles again.
Jones expects championships, too. But he must take a longer view. “As the caretaker of Tennessee football, I also have to be a realist,” he said. “I have to understand where we’re at. We’re still a couple of recruiting classes away from being where we expect to be, but that’s why you come to Tennessee—because of the expectations. We want that.”
Those expectations shouldn’t be entirely squelched. While Jones has legitimate concerns about depth, the Vols also have some excellent reasons to be excited. There are the aforementioned Hurd (899 rushing yards in 2014) and Barnett (20.5 tackles for loss). There is the veteran—for this bunch—linebacking corps, which includes fifth-year senior Curt Maggitt, junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin and sophomore Jakob Johnson. There is 315-pound early enrollee Shy Tuttle, who is making the most of all those reps he’ll get as one of the few healthy defensive linemen. There is Marquez North, the 6’4”, 224-pound junior receiver who will ensure next year’s pro day is well attended.
Then there’s the future rocket scientist Tennessee has playing quarterback. Josh Dobbs majors in aerospace engineering, can recite Pi to 48 decimal places and completely changed the complexion of the Vols’ offense when he took over as the starter two-thirds of the way through the 2014 regular season. Jones trusts Dobbs so much that he let the junior sit in on offensive coordinator interviews, and Dobbs took the task so seriously that—after participating in candidate Mike DeBord’s interview—he and receiver Josh Malone showed up later that night to watch film with DeBord. Before Debord left, he pulled Dobbs aside and offered two tips. “Your stance is too wide, so you’re false stepping sometimes,” said DeBord, who was unsure if he’d ever see the quarterback again. “And your lead foot is pivoting sometimes and it’s throwing your hips when you’re throwing the ball.” Jones hired DeBord, who returned to Knoxville less than two weeks later and got a status update from Dobbs. “He’d already fixed it,” DeBord said.
The Vols should get excited about developments such as this. For the first time since before Fulmer was fired, there is real cause for optimism and some genuine talent beneath the outsized expectations. Is Tennessee ready quite yet? We don’t know. Ohio State was supposed to be a year away in 2014, and look what happened. But don’t expect Jones to guarantee anything. He knows his team will play on the knife’s edge. A few sprains or breaks could change everything, because adding depth is the final phase of Tennessee’s rebuilding project.
A random ranking
NBC plans to update the beloved sitcom Coach by having Craig T. Nelson’s Hayden Fox get hired as an assistant to his adult son at an Ivy League school. Here are the top five ways the network can bring the show into the modern era of college football.
1. Fox had two assistants, Luther Van Dam and Dauber Dybinski. Aside from the fact that neither was coordinator material, such a tiny staff would never work in today’s game. So, hopefully the younger Fox will rip a page from Nick Saban’s book. Along with the NCAA-maximum nine on-field assistants, Fox should hire analysts who are analogous to every position coach. Even if NBC pays all these guys scale, casting this show would cost a fortune. But can you put a price on realism?
2. The new Coach needs a season-long plotline in which Dauber tries to salvage his career after getting a show-cause penalty following a dubious NCAA investigation. He beats the NCAA in court and wins millions, and then gets hired by the Foxes. If Law & Order can rip its narrative from the headlines, so can Coach.
3. The first season should feature the younger Fox convincing the older Fox of the value of a hurry-up offense.
4. Shelley Fabares was a teen idol in the 1960s before playing Christine on Coach for most of the ’90s. Keeping the math consistent means either Debbie Gibson or Tiffany must play the younger Fox’s love interest.
5. Who should play the younger Fox? We all know there is only one man who can credibly play a head football coach on television. In fact, let’s just have the writers formulate a reason why this guy’s name is Eric Taylor and go from there.
1. Michigan coaches have developed their own proprietary quarterback rating system to help determine which of their inexperienced passers will lead the offense this fall. The idea arose shortly after coach Jim Harbaugh put his staff together. The offensive coaches were looking for a better way to evaluate practice reps from the quarterbacks, but wanted something that fit their priorities. Are you going to see the formula here? Of course not. The coaches aren’t revealing it, but are using it to figure out who they want to play.
“We designed one based on what we value,” passing game coordinator Jedd Fisch said. “What kind of deduction do you want to give for a turnover? For an incompletion? I think it made it very clear to them that the competition is on.”
Junior Shane Morris has started two games in his career. Redshirt freshman Wilton Speight and freshman Alex Malzone have not played a college snap. The competition will stretch into preseason camp—when freshman Zach Gentry and possibly Iowa transfer Jake Rudock will join—but Wolverines coaches would like to establish a pecking order. They are trying to do that by attempting to simulate game pressure as accurately as possible at practice. “They’re under pressure every minute of every day,” said Fisch, who was the Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator last year. “They’re living a two-minute drill.”
And the players see where they’re rated on a regular basis. “We grade them on every throw,” Fisch said. “On every snap. They see their grades every day.”
2. One of the worst-kept secrets in college football was revealed Thursday when Michigan cornerbacks coach Mike Zordich told reporters the Wolverines had “a transfer from Stanford coming in.” That transfer is almost certainly Cardinal cornerback Wayne Lyons, who is scheduled to graduate in June. Lyons’s mother, Gwen Bush, was hired as Michigan’s director of player development in January.
3. Alabama coach Nick Saban took heat this winter for signing defensive tackle Jonathan Taylor, who had been tossed from Georgia in July 2014 after he was arrested following an accusation that he had punched his girlfriend during an argument. That case hasn’t even been resolved, and Taylor already has another one pending. On Saturday in Tuscaloosa Taylor was arrested and accused of assaulting his 24-year-old girlfriend. He was promptly dismissed from Alabama’s team. Saban said when he signed Taylor that the 335-pounder deserved a second chance. (It was actually Taylor’s third chance; he was one of the Georgia players who double-cashed university-issued checks in ’14.) Taylor proved Saban wrong on Saturday.
So, should Saban have offered Taylor a shot? I’m of the opinion that someone who belongs to the group of men who will hit a woman usually will not transition into the much larger group of men who would never hit a woman. I wish society in general would take this issue more seriously. If the courts put away men who hit women, football coaches wouldn’t have to decide whether such men deserved second chances until after they served significant jail time. If these types of cases generally resulted in jail time for the guilty, a coach wouldn’t be so quick to sign a player with a pending domestic violence case. (Yes, I realize that distinguishing between a man hitting a man and a man hitting a woman is a double standard that probably makes me some kind of chauvinist. Too bad. I’m old-fashioned. Men who were raised properly don’t hit women, and they don’t defend men who do.)
I always think back to what someone at Oklahoma told me after tailback Joe Mixon was suspended from the football team for the 2014 season for punching a woman with whom he was in an argument. Mixon’s case was not domestic—he didn’t know the woman—but he is a man who punched a woman and was scarcely punished by the legal system in the municipality in which he threw the punch. The person from Oklahoma said, “If we had kicked him off the team, someone else would have picked him up immediately. And then he wouldn’t have been punished at all.”
That may sound like a rationalization, but it’s the truth. If society doesn’t care enough about this stuff to demand serious punishments from the court system, then why should we expect football coaches to take them seriously?
Taylor’s arrest did overshadow a second DUI arrest in two years for Alabama safety Geno Smith. Smith’s punishment remains undeclared.
4. The day the College Football Playoff selection committee picked the four teams for the inaugural field, Baylor coach Art Briles complained about the Big 12’s snub this way: “You want to ask me about a team in this part of the United States? I can tell you about ’em. I can tell you their weaknesses and their strengths, O.K.? They need to have somebody on there that knows the teams in this part of the nation. The only person born in the South on that committee is Condoleezza Rice. She was born in Alabama.”
The playoff granted Briles’s wish Friday, selecting former Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson to replace Archie Manning, who left the committee without participating in deliberations. Johnson grew up in Columbia, S.C. He played at Clemson under Hootie Ingram. As reader @WoodyWhitehurst pointed out on Twitter, playing football for a man called Hootie is quite possibly the most Southern thing a man could ever do.
5. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said last week that his quarterback competition is beginning to wear on him. “That’s the only thing that's starting to eat away at me a little bit,” Meyer told reporters Tuesday. “It didn’t for a while because you're just so busy. But now that I’m seeing what I’m seeing, I have such great respect for all three guys.” Meyer is seeing more of J.T. Barrett than he expected because the redshirt sophomore is recovering quickly from a broken ankle. Meyer is seeing plenty of Cardale Jones, the only completely healthy player in the three-man competition. Meyer is seeing less of Braxton Miller, who threw off to the side at the Buckeyes’ first spring practice March 10, but will be brought along more slowly as his right shoulder continues to heal.
Miller’s Instagramming thumbs were in good working order last week, however, and Doug Lesmerises of The (Cleveland) Plain-Dealer has an informative breakdown of L’affaire AdvoCare.
6. The details of first-year Kansas coach David Beaty’s contract were reported last week by Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star, and they look a lot like what you would expect from a struggling football program that just finished paying Turner Gill and still hasn’t finished paying Charlie Weis.
Beaty is guaranteed $800,000, but his contract is loaded with incentives that could push that number higher if he does a good job. These include an extra $25,000 for each Big 12 victory, $100,000 for a Big 12 regular-season championship (including a co-championship; never change, Big 12), $100,000 for a bowl appearance, $250,000 for making one of the six College Football Playoff money bowls, $50,000 for winning The Associated Press national coach of the year award and $50,000 for being chosen as the Big 12 coach of the year. These incentives are cumulative, meaning the playoff bowl bonus wouldn’t cancel out the bonus for simply making a bowl.
Let’s do some math. If Kansas goes undefeated in Big 12 play—which would give the Jayhawks the Big 12 title and almost certainly land Beaty both coach of the year awards—and makes a New Year’s Six bowl, Beaty would make $1.575 million for the season. That’s nearly twice his guarantee, but would still make him the biggest bargain in college football.
All joking aside, the last contract that looked this way was for another interim coach handed the reigns at his program. In 2009 Clemson’s Dabo Swinney turned down guaranteed money and signed an incentive-heavy contract to get a bigger budget to hire quality assistants. At the time, Swinney called himself a “walk-on coach.” He has since been put on scholarship in a big way.
7. First Swinney beats Steve Spurrier on the field for the first time since he was Clemson’s interim coach. Now he’s challenging Spurrier for college football’s smack-talking crown. Speaking to ESPN.com’s David Hale about quarterback Deshaun Watson’s rehab, Swinney said: “He’s probably about 80 percent right now. Most people would be 50 or 60, but he’s not most people. He’s a uniquely wired individual. He’s great. He’s healthier now than he was when he beat South Carolina.”
If the Head Ball Coach didn’t hate losing to his rival so much, he might tip the visor to Swinney for that one. The utter dismissiveness tucked into the zinger proves Swinney has been studying Spurrier’s digs. That one sounded as if it came from the master himself.
9. Goodbye and good luck to Vanderbilt quarterback Patton Robinette, who aced the ACT in high school and who will retire from football so he can enter Vandy’s medical school this summer. Robinette started five games and played in 11 others during his career. He completed 89 of 155 passes for 1,096 yards with seven touchdowns.
10. This week in Jim Harbaugh …
Michigan Nicknames Snake-Bubba-Jumbo-Flame-Soup-EasyEd-BigEd-BigHoss-Chunky-SirCharles-Bump & the ultimate nickname that became legendary Bo— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) March 27, 2015
Or maybe this …
Just experienced 1of the high points in my life: Speaking w/ Michigan grad & legend James Earl Jones. Doesn't get any better! Just doesn't!— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) March 27, 2015
What’s eating Andy?
Television networks can reboot Coach. They can reboot Knight Rider. They can reboot Inspector Gadget. Why can’t they reboot Magnum, P.I.? Is it too much to ask for TV's greatest contribution to the culture?
What’s Andy eating?
When I lived in Knoxville from 2000-02, best burger in town was at Litton’s. It was a quaint little eatery in the Fountain City neighborhood where diners wrote their names on a chalkboard and waited their turn for a divinely prepared burger that made up in execution what it lacked in creativity. The only thing that could knock Litton’s from its perch was a burger joint that executed the bun-burger-cheese-bun part as well as Litton’s—but with a little flair. That place is Stock & Barrel.
Stock & Barrel was always going to do well since it tapped into America’s rekindled love of whiskey—the menu claims 137 different varieties, and the back wall of the bar seems to confirm that claim—and because it set up shop in the trendy Market Square complex. But what makes the place special are those burgers, which are carefully sourced and perfectly cooked.
I ordered the Big Nasty, which includes two beef patties from Mitchell Family Farms in Blaine, Tenn., two slabs of barrel-aged cheddar cheese, a double order of Benton’s bacon, a sweet tomato jam and mayonnaise that I declined because SI could never pay me enough to eat a condiment that tastes like despair feels. All of that flavor is wedged between two halves of a bun from Knoxville’s Flour Head bakery. This is important. Great bread can seriously upgrade any sandwich, and the Flour Head buns are soft and slightly sweet, but strong enough to stand up to all the juice pouring from the two patties. Stock & Barrel puts serious effort into finding every ingredient, and the result is one of the best burgers in the country. The Benton’s bacon is heavenly, thick and smoky with a hint of sweetness that works in concert with the grease from the beef. That tomato jam is a classed-up version of ketchup. The cheese is a notch above ordinary. Most importantly, the burger is perfectly cooked. I order my steaks rare but my ground beef items medium, and Stock & Barrel cooked the burger precisely as I ordered it without losing any of the juice.
The place also understands the importance of fries. Bad fries can ruin a good burger. This is why I don’t share the prevailing opinion of In-N-Out Burger. In-N-Out has terrible fries, which devalues the entire experience. Five Guys makes a lesser burger, but also excellent fries. So, after performing a burger-fry-cost-benefit analysis, I usually choose Five Guys. Stock & Barrel does not force anyone to make this choice. The regular hand-cut fries are plenty good, but the place offers an option that raises those humble potatoes into a work of art. For $2, diners can upgrade their fries to duck fat fries. While fat from peanuts, soybeans, rapeseeds and sunflower seeds does a fine job of frying potatoes, something about the molten flesh of Donald and Daisy renders them irresistible.
The burger and fries stretched my stomach so thoroughly that only dessert could fill the void. Fortunately, Stock & Barrel has a limited edition Thin Mint shake. Thin Mints are the finest Girl Scout cookies. Thin Mints from the freezer are the reason why. Crushing Thin Mints into ice cream and blending it with milk is the equivalent of putting the freezer—and its most precious contents—into the Thin Mints box. No Friday afternoon outside of football season should be as joyous as the one I spent at Stock & Barrel, but the place kept delivering excellence directly to my seat.