At least one Tennessee assistant coach will be on the move this offseason. Tight ends coach and special teams coordinator Mark Elder will be named the new head coach at Eastern Kentucky, according to multiple reports.
“It is humbling to have the opportunity to lead the same program that legendary coach Roy Kidd built into a national powerhouse,” Elder said in a release from EKU. “It’s important to me that we maintain the standards, both on and off the field, that coach Kidd established during his Hall of Fame career.”
Elder will become just the third assistant coach to leave Tennessee under Butch Jones in the last three years, joining running backs coach Jay Graham who left for Florida State and was replaced by Robert Gillespie and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, who left to become the quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Bucs and was replaced by Mike DeBord in early 2015.
In his Outback Bowl selection press conference on Monday afternoon, Jones was asked about the general possibility of coaches looking into other jobs this offseason.
“It’s not my job to speculate on other programs’ job openings,” he said. “I will say this, when other institutions want to inquire information about our coaches, that is a compliment to what we are building here. We have very good football coaches and even better individuals. People around the country understand what we have done here in a very short period of time and how far we have come. It’s been noticed around the country, but in terms of speculation, it is not my place.”
Elder led arguably the strongest part of Tennessee’s 2015 team – the special teams. The Vols led the nation in kickoff return average with 33.4 yards per return and came in tied for second nationally in kickoff return touchdowns with three.
Outside of some early-season struggles from kicker Aaron Medley, who ended up finishing the year making 11 of his last 12 attempts, Tennessee was at or near the top of every category in the SEC in special teams, including punt coverage (2nd), punting (2nd) and punt return yardage (2nd). Walk-on punter Trevor Daniel, thought to be a long shot to even win the job coming into fall camp, also developed into one of the best punters in the conference – finishing second in the SEC and sixth nationally in punting average (45.5 yards per punt).
While Jones regularly points out that different coaches oversee various special teams units, it still can’t be denied that Elder’s overall coordination of this phase of the game was impressive for UT.
And while the passing game was sporadic for Tennessee in 2015, the tight end position did show impressive growth since Elder arrived with Jones from Cincinnati in late 2012. The tight ends had just 15 catches for 98 yards in Elder’s first season, but bolstered by the addition of Ethan Wolf in the 2014 signing class, the Vols have 26 catches for 320 yards from the tight end position so far this season with the bowl game still to come.
Based in Richmond, Ky., Eastern Kentucky is an FCS program with an all-time record of 552-344-38, 20 FCS playoff appearances and two national titles. EKU has been reportedly exploring possibilities to move to the FBS level – potentially joining the Sun Belt Conference in the future. Elder, a 15-year coaching veteran who had coached under Jones since 2007 with stops at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and now UT, will be replacing Dean Hood at EKU, who was fired following a 6-5 campaign in 2015.
“Eastern Kentucky has not only hired an outstanding football coach, but an even better person, teacher, mentor and motivator in Mark Elder,” Jones said, via the release from EKU. “I would like to congratulate and also thank Mark for nine great years. I am very excited for the opportunity he, his wife Lindsey and son Owen are about to take on and I wish them all the best at Eastern Kentucky.”