In a sense, not a lot will change for new Tennessee offensive line coach Walt Wells in 2017.
After working as an offensive line quality control coach for UT in 2016, Wells knows the ins-and-outs of being on the practice field, planning for games and helping lead one of the most important positions on the field.
There will be one big difference, however. After standing in the shadows a bit of former offensive line coach Don Mahoney and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, Wells will now be the top voice in the meeting room and on the field. He’s hoping that an inconsistent bunch in 2016 will respond to him better in 2017.
“Well obviously they are going to take my personality,” Wells said on Wednesday in his first interview since being named the offensive line coach in February. “My lines in the past have been known to be able to run the football and play with an edge and play with some toughness. I hope they adapt my personality through spring, summer camp and through fall. We have an experienced group that is a good group of guys, and I am looking forward to getting out on the field and working with them.”
Promoting a quality control coach might not have been the splash hire that some Tennessee fans were looking for as Butch Jones overhauled the staff this offseason, but Wells brings over 20 years of coaching experience with stops including Eastern Kentucky, Western Kentucky, South Florida and New Mexico State. The Nashville native, who will primarily recruit the state of Tennessee, is getting his first Power Five school opportunity this season, and his challenge will be to maximize one of the most experienced groups on UT’s roster.
His unit includes seven returning players who have started at least one game in addition to some talented young players, most notably offensive tackle Trey Smith, who was ranked by ESPN.com as the No. 1 player in the nation in the 2017 recruiting class.
That means he’ll have tough personnel decisions to make. But, while he’ll continue Mahoney’s style of working players at multiple positions, Wells says his focus is getting the best five on the field and letting that group find some continuity and familiarity – something that appeared to be missing at times in 2016.
“Yes, you have to cross-train,” he said. “In today’s world, you have to get your best five out there, whatever that is. You don’t want a great player sitting on the bench because there’s two other good players sitting there when he could come in and help at a new position, but we will cross-train and that’s something they’re used to, but we’ll try to settle them in at positions.
“It’s a competition. You look at all the teams across the board in the SEC that are successful – they’re not rotating guys and worrying about hurt feelings or anything like that. We have to go out and find the best five available that’s going to come off the ball, hit somebody in the mouth, get some movement upfront and protect the passer.”
After finishing in the middle of the pack in the conference in both sacks allowed and total rushing yards in 2016, there’s certainly some room for improvement, and with Tennessee looking to replace over 70 percent of its offensive production, a lot of pressure falls on this unit to lead the way. There will be a first-time starter at quarterback, running back and only one returning receiver with over 15 catches.
That presents a big opportunity, and a fair amount of pressure, for Wells, a lifetime lower-level coach who now runs the offensive line at the place he describes as his dream school.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to be here,” he said. “It’s more than a dream, it’s reality now and I know what the reality is. We need results, and that’s my goal just as much as anybody else in this building.”