The mark of a good head coach can be found in the assistants he hires to help run the side of the ball he’s less familiar with. Phillip Fulmer hired John Chavis as UT’s defensive coordinator, and for years those two worked together effectively at Tennessee. Nick Saban has had successes (Lane Kiffin) and failures (Steve Sarkisian) hiring offensive coordinators at Alabama, and there are countless other examples to point to when it comes to coaches hiring the right or wrong man to run a certain side of the ball.
For Jeremy Pruitt, a first-time head coach, much was made about who he would hire to be his offensive coordinator at Tennessee. When it was all said and done, Pruitt tabbed USC quarterbacks coach Tyson Helton to be his man. Tennessee gave Helton a $1.2 million annual contract despite the 41-year-old never having been the main play-caller for a Power Five program.
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Nine games into his tenure at Tennessee, Helton’s job has come into question by many Vol fans. The Vols’ offense has seen growth from last season’s abysmal performance, but UT is still in the bottom of the SEC in most offensive categories.
Pruitt was asked about his first-year OC’s job so far this season during the SEC coaches’ weekly teleconference, and he quantified Helton’s performance so far by stating that Tennessee has gone through quite a bit of adversity in 2018 thus far.
“When you talk about coming into a program for the first time, there’s a learning curve, and there’s obviously a reason that we’re here,” Pruitt stated. “We’ve lost Brandon Kennedy up front, we’ve lost Trey Smith up front, and it’s a position that we don’t have a lot of depth as it is.
“If you’re going to be successful in this league, you’ve got to be good up front.”
Tennessee’s offensive line is arguably the worst offensive line in the SEC and quite possibly in all of college football. UT’s line has allowed 18 sacks through nine games and an SEC-worst 74 tackles for loss. In fact, only three teams among the 130 FBS teams (Oregon State, Florida State, and Kent State) have allowed more TFLs on the year than Tennessee.
The Vols ran for just 20 yards on 26 carries against Conference USA opponent Charlotte last weekend, and UT has failed to run for 100 yards in four of their nine games this season. Most of that has been because of poor blocking on the offensive line.
UT’s offensive line play has hindered what Helton and the offense can do, and Pruitt understands that. Another reason Helton was brought in was to help develop redshirt sophomore quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, and Pruitt has been pleased with what Helton has done there.
“I think when you look at our quarterback position, we’ve not turned the ball over,” Pruitt added. “When you talk about throwing interceptions, we’ve been efficient there. You talk about play-makers, trying to find ways to get play-makers the ball, I think we’ve done a really good job of doing that.”
On the season, Jarrett Guarantano has completed 65.6 percent of his 195 pass attempts for 1,571 yards, nine touchdowns, and only two interceptions. Among quarterbacks in the SEC who have attempted at least 150 passes, only Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa has thrown fewer interceptions (1) than Guarantano this season. Guarantano is also fourth in the conference among qualifying quarterbacks in yards per pass attempt, averaging 8.1 yards an attempt.
It’s clear Pruitt doesn’t think quarterback play has been the issue for Tennessee’s offense this season. He points out not only the injuries along the offensive line and the play of the line in general, but he also looks at the youth of UT’s offense this year as another reason for inconsistent play.
“I look at the South Carolina game, Madre London played two snaps. He’s the only senior that played in that game,” Pruitt said. “We played five juniors in that game. We have a very young football team that’s inexperienced, and I think we’ve continued to improve every week, except maybe one.
“To me, that’s a mark of trying to do things the right way.”
Tennessee only has 11 scholarship seniors or redshirt seniors on their roster this season. And of those 11 seniors, only two of them play on offense for the Vols. And both of those players joined the program this offseason as grad transfers. Quarterback Keller Chryst and running back Madre London are the only seniors on offense for UT this season.
The Vols do have several redshirt juniors on offense, such as Jauan Jennings, Drew Richmond, Eli Wolf, and Chance Hall, but even those players aren’t all that experienced on the field. Three of those four players have missed either a full season or large periods of time due to injury, and Wolf wasn’t a scholarship player until last year.
Tennessee’s offense is last in the SEC in points per game, rushing yards per game, and total yards per game, and they’re second-to-last in yards per play.
But Pruitt isn’t putting all the blame on Helton, and he understand the first-year play-caller didn’t walk into an ideal situation with UT’s offense.