Vol fans have seen firsthand how hiring the wrong coordinator can doom a head coach. Phillip Fulmer hired Dave Clawson as his offensive coordinator prior to the 2008 season, and the Vols’ offense ended up being arguably the worst in school history and was one of the reasons Fulmer was fired that season. Derek Dooley brought in Sal Sunseri to be his defensive coordinator in 2012, and UT’s defense that season was one of the worst defenses the program has ever seen. That hire was a big reason Dooley was fired that year as well.
But hiring the right coordinator, such as Fulmer bringing back David Cutcliffe to be his OC in 2006, can make all the difference for a head coach. And that’s especially true for a first-time head coach like new Vol head coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Pruitt assembled a staff of mostly young but talented coaches for his first ever coaching staff at Tennessee. And one of his most talked about hires was his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Tyson Helton.
When Pruitt hired Helton away from USC, the move caught the attention of Vol fans. Most fans thought that if Tennessee was going to hire someone from USC to be on the offensive staff at UT, it was going to be former Vol quarterback Tee Martin who was also on staff with the Trojans.
Instead, Helton, who was the quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator at USC, was Pruitt’s choice. And UT paid a pretty penny for him, giving him a contract worth $1.2 million annually. None of Tennessee’s other assistant coaches are making more than $805,000 annually.
Time will tell if Helton was worth the big investment, but one college football analyst believes that Helton is not only one of the most important assistant hires in all of college football heading into the 2018 season, but also the most important hire of Pruitt’s coaching career.
Zach Barnett of Football Scoop started a series looking at the 15 most important assistant coaching hires in college football for the 2018 season, and he ranked Tyson Helton as the No. 7 most important hire this offseason.
According to Barnett, the Tennessee job is the biggest job of Pruitt’s coaching career “bar none” up to this point.
“Everything Pruitt has done in his 44 years on this planet and 21 seasons in the coaching business has built toward this exact moment,” Barnett writes. “Maybe he takes over for Nick Saban at his alma mater one day, maybe he moves on to the NFL, or maybe he sticks around in Knoxville as the second coming of General Robert Neyland. The possibilities are endless, but one thing is certain: that future will be written through what happens in the next 2-to-4 years.”
Barnett goes on to say that because of that, Pruitt hiring Helton as his offensive coordinator is “the biggest hire Pruitt will ever make in his life.” With Pruitt being a defensive-minded coach, Barnett poses that his offensive coordinator is the most important position on his coaching staff. And Helton has the qualifications according to Barnett.
“Helton is well qualified for the position,” he adds. “Schooled under the likes of June Jones and Jeff Brohm, Helton’s work at USC most likely saved the staff’s jobs in 2016, as redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold rescued the Trojans from a 1-3 start to a 9-0 finish, capped by a thrilling Rose Bowl win and No. 3 final ranking.”
Helton has not only worked at USC, but he was also the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Western Kentucky in 2014 and 2015 under then head coach Jeff Brohm. He’s coached quarterbacks like the aforementioned Darnold, Brandon Doughty (who set several school records at Western Kentucky), and Joe Webb (the first quarterback in NCAA history to throw for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in a season).
Not only that, but Helton was actually named Football Scoop’s Quarterbacks Coach of the Year in 2016 as well. So Barnett has thought highly of Helton for a while now.
Helton will be taking over an offense that was last in the SEC in points per game (19.8), total offensive yards per game (291.1), first downs per game (16.4), and in third down conversions (30.7 percent). The Vols were also second-to-last in passing yards per game (173.7), rushing yards per game (117.4), and overall red zone scoring percentage (80 percent).
Tennessee’s offense will be starting from ground zero in 2018 and will be changing from a spread-option style to more of a pro-style under Helton. The Vols will also have another quarterback battle heading into this season just like last year. Stanford graduate transfer quarterback Keller Chryst will be attempting to unseat Jarrett Guarantano, who started six of the Vols’ last seven games last season.
The Vols’ offense can really only get better after last year’s performance, but how quickly can it improve? That will be Helton’s job this season, and he’ll have to build off whatever happens this year in the seasons to come.