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.