State of the Vols: OC Search Edition

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    Butch Jones-1
    Editor’s note: This will be the final installment of our regular Monday weekly column, State of the Vols. In an effort to get you more information quicker than ever before, we are in the process of creating an updated forum and will continue to write more news posts with all of the information that would’ve regularly been in State of the Vols. 

     Football

    A lot can change in a week. Last Monday we were talking about the Vols getting ready to start a relatively normal offseason program with little team news coming up on the horizon.

    That all changed on Thursday with the announcement that offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, the only OC Jones has employed as a head coach, had resigned to become the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterbacks coach under Lovie Smith, somebody he worked for with the Chicago Bears as a quality control coach for from 2004-06.

    Bajakian was first offered the job on Sunday and was torn between staying in Knoxville and accepting the Tampa Bay job. To further complicate the issue, after Bajakian verbally agreed to the deal on Thursday morning, officials from Central Michigan reached out to him about their suddenly-vacant head coaching spot after Dan Enos left the Chippewas to be the offensive coordinator at Arkansas. Bajakian listened, but decided that Tampa Bay was the better overall spot for him.

    After eight years with Jones, why did Bajakian leave on the cusp of what could be a huge year for Tennessee offensively?

    It’s tough to say with certainty. In a radio interview with WNML-FM in Knoxville, Bajakian mentioned the opportunity to work with Smith, his aspirations to be a head coach in the future and the opportunity to potentially be home more with his family as all weighing into the decision on some level. Anything else would be speculation at this point.

    Tampa Bay did not release the financial details of the deal, so it’s hard to know how much, if any, he benefitted in that area. Bajakian made $480k per season with the Vols, but the assistant coach salary pool was recently raised by AD Dave Hart, so he may have made more in 2015. Bajakian owes approximately $160k in buyout money for breaking contract.

    What next? The timing of Bajakian’s decision, two weeks before signing day, puts Jones in a bit of a bind as he needs to either make a quick hire or be able to convince the recruits still on the board that the hire won’t affect their status. Jones moved quickly in bringing in mentor and friend Mike DeBord, (read more about his background here), over the weekend for conversations related to the open position. What exactly they discussed isn’t known at this point, but it’d be safe to call the former Michigan OC a frontrunner as of Monday afternoon, though we can’t call it a done deal at this point.

    If he were to be hired, and we have no official indication that he has as of late Monday morning, it’s also unclear if he’d be a full-fledged coordinator or a co-coordinator/run-game coordinator. But while there’s a decent chance that DeBord could join the staff before too long, we’re also not ruling out some kind of promotion for receivers coach/recruiting coordinator Zach Azzanni, who has been the presumed top in-house candidate for the OC promotion. One source suggested that a run game/passing game coordinator setup with DeBord and Azzanni could be one option Jones considers.

    But it’s also worth remembering that Azzanni could be in play for the head coaching job at Central Michigan. As of Monday afternoon, Azzanni was out recruiting for Tennessee, so any reports of him already being gone are inaccurate. Though that CMU search will be interesting to follow because of not only Azzanni, but also defensive coordinator John Jancek’s name being linked in reports to that opening.

    Jones did make a few public comments on Sunday night about the search on an appearance on FootballScoop Radio, here are some highlights of what he said:

    Jones also mentioned that he’s reached out to a pretty powerful football triumvirate – Peyton Manning, Jon Gruden and Phillip Fulmer – to get their input on the search.

    On the team front, the Vols began their official offseason program under strength coach Dave Lawson last Tuesday and it’s a mix of strength, speed, flexibility and agility work primarily at this point in the year. Lawson and his staff are big on football-specific workouts and moves, and aren’t as concerned with max-out numbers right now especially.

    It’ll be a big several weeks for this team – especially the early enrollees and some of the rising sophomores – to get their strength levels up to SEC standards. Remember that UT had so many freshmen playing in important roles during the season that many of them weren’t able to be on the lifting plan that those who redshirt or don’t play as much were. This will be an opportunity for some of them to play catch up.

    Finally, one nice community service note for the current team is that several Vols including Curt Maggitt, Jakob Johnson, Chance Hall, Evan Berry and others made their way to Gatlinburg to participate in the Tennessee Special Olympics Winter Ceremony on Sunday.

     Recruiting

    With exactly one week until the start of the final dead period in recruiting, it is officially crunch time for Tennessee to put the finishing touches on their 2015 class.

    The Vols got good news last week when Michigan running back John Kelly gave his verbal pledge to Tennessee and joined Kendall Bussey, Joc Bruce and Alvin Kamara as players who will get their first look at running back in this signing class. Tennessee desperately wanted to add another back to the class for long-term depth at the position and it appears that they were very comfortable with John Kelly being that guy. Kelly is a guy that will need to develop a little bit before becoming a major contributor, and should benefit greatly from learning behind Kamara and Jalen Hurd for a year or two.

    Kendall Bussey spent this weekend in College Station, Texas on a visit to see Texas A&M, but it doesn’t appear that his visit is anything that Vol coaches or fans need to worry about too much. Bussey has been committed to Tennessee for a little over a month now, and has said since committing to the Vols that his decision was final, so it appears that his visit to A&M was nothing more than an opportunity for him to be sure of his decision. Bussey is likely going to be in Knoxville this weekend for his official visit, so Tennessee will have their last push to make sure he remains a part of the 2015 class. It’s worth keeping an eye on, but we still like UT’s chances as of now.

    In the wake of Kelly’s commitment last week, Wake Forest, North Carolina running back Bryce Love opted to cancel his visit to Tennessee over the weekend and announced that he will be making his commitment on January 30th at his high school. Love has long been considered to be down to a final two of Stanford and Tennessee and it looks like Kelly’s decision may have ended any speculation as to where Love will likely be heading.

    The Vols are still scheduled to host Virginia running back/athlete Jaason Lewis this weekend as well, but, with Tennessee seemingly full at the running back position in this class, it will be worth watching to see if Lewis ends up making it to town.

    The biggest news of the week is that surrounding the potential of Memphis’ Drew Richmond making a final visit to Knoxville this weekend. Tennessee has been looking for another offensive tackle to add to the class and Richmond has remained at the top of their board.

    Don Mahoney visited with Richmond last week, Butch Jones is likely to visit with Richmond this week and it looks like Richmond may indeed schedule an official visit to Knoxville this weekend. The rest of the Vols’ recruiting class has been in Richmond’s ear throughout the process, and it looks like the pressure may finally be paying off. Tennessee isn’t alone in their pursuit of Richmond, however, as it looks like Alabama is still getting some serious consideration as well. There is a chance that Richmond may even delay his signing until later in February or possibly even March in order to make an official visit to Tuscaloosa before making his final decision, but that visit has not yet been confirmed.

    There are some close to Richmond’s recruitment who have thought for quite some time that the Vols were in prime position to earn the flip by the time the talented tackle makes his final decision and signs his letter of intent, and Tennessee getting him to campus this late in the process only justifies those reports.

    Finally, we reported last week that wide receiver commit Preston Williams had planned to visit Auburn over the weekend. Well, Williams did end up making the trip, but ended up leaving the visit a day early. The rumors out of Auburn were that Williams was “being a distraction” and “disrupting the weekend,” but we are hearing that Williams was actually asked to leave by Auburn staff members because he showed up wearing nothing but Tennessee apparel and was actively recruiting other visitors to join him at Tennessee. Not exactly prototypical guest behavior for an official visitor, but that news isn’t likely to upset Vol fans too much.

    Lastly, we leave you with this tweet from Kahlil McKenzie. Many have suggested that the Vols may be done adding players to the 2015 class, but Kahlil apparently sees things differently.

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    Never a dull moment in recruiting. We’ll have all your coverage this week as signing day approaches.

     Basketball

    Tennessee went 1-1 last week, winning the game most of us picked them to lose and, naturally, losing the game the entire RTI team picked them to win. That’s been par for the course in what has been an unpredictable, and surprisingly successful, season for the Vol basketball team.

    The young Vols sit at 12-6 (4-2 in the SEC) headed into Tuesday’s matchup with Arkansas – a team they beat 74-69 just two weeks ago. After the Vols travel to Fayetteville, they return home to welcome Bruce Pearl and the Auburn Tigers to Knoxville (Saturday at 12pm, ESPN2).

    Another 1-1 week from the Vols should be expected. If Tennessee is able to split this week’s games then beat Mississippi State next week, they’ll be 14-7 (6-3) halfway through conference play. No one expected that prior to the season. As always, we’ll have full game previews for you this week.

    Donnie Tyndall said on Monday that he expects to have an update on Jabari McGhee’s injured foot next week, but added that he hates to waste a year of McGhee’s eligibility unless he absolutely has to.

    On the recruiting front, Tennessee offered JUCO guard Malique Trent last week. Rated as a high 3-star combo guard, Trent attends the same junior college as Kimani Jackson – a 4-star power forward who also recently picked up a Vol offer. Class of 2015 small forward Khalil Iverson, a 6-5, 205 pound prospect from Delaware, Ohio, was in Knoxville over the weekend for an official visit. He’s been shooting up recruiting boards of late with programs like Xavier and West Virginia showing increased interest in the versatile wing.We’ll obviously keep you posted on Tennessee’s recruiting efforts as the season progresses.

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