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Column: This is the Reality of the Vols’ OC Search

Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

Tennessee hasn’t had an offensive coordinator officially on staff in over a month. Tyson Helton left UT’s program in late November to accept the head coaching position at Western Kentucky. Since then, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt has been looking for his replacement, but he hasn’t had much luck.

The Vols haven’t been directly turned down by a bunch of candidates like we’ve seen in the past when UT has looked for head coaches. Remember the head coaching search in 2012? Or even the one that took place in 2017? Tennessee’s search for an offensive coordinator hasn’t reached nearly those levels of dysfunction.

But the search has still been frustrating.

Pruitt really seemed to want former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, but that didn’t work out. Freeze was also reportedly in play for the offensive coordinator position at Auburn, but that didn’t happen either. He’s now the head coach at Liberty. Pruitt talked with several other candidates besides Freeze, but there was never officially an offer extended to any other coach until a report surfaced claiming that Tennessee had sent out an offer to Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.

Instead of coming to Tennessee, though, Yurcich appears to be heading to Ohio State. Yurcich’s denial appears to be the first time the Vols have truly swung and missed on a candidate, though things have been kept fairly under wraps thus far. Tennessee could’ve offered other coaches and those offers just may never have been made public. Who knows at this point?

So why has Tennessee’s search for an offensive coordinator taken so long and seemed so convoluted?

First of all, let’s take a step back and assess the situation and condition of Tennessee’s football program right now. Vol fans want to believe that Tennessee is still one of the top programs in college football and that most any coach would want to coach in Knoxville and be tied to the University of Tennessee.

That’s fine. Fans should hold their university in high regard like that. If they let the standards slip, then they begin to accept mediocrity. But the reality of UT’s situation doesn’t match up with the perception of most Vol fans.

Whoever the Vols’ new offensive coordinator ends up being isn’t walking into a loaded roster with a track record of great offensive success. Tennessee’s new OC will be taking over an offense that arguably had the worst offensive line in college football last season, and that’s just the beginning of the issues.

Tennessee has averaged a mere 21.3 points per game and 308.3 yards per game over the last two seasons. The Vols have finished last in the SEC in yards per game each of the last two years, and they were last in points per game in 2017 and second-to-last in 2018.

Yes, the Vols have some talented players on offense. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano took some steps last year, and the Vols have a very talented and experienced receiver corps. The running back room will be full of play-making ability too. But that offensive line holds everything back, and unless that unit can take a massive step forward in 2019, no offensive coordinator is going to look great calling plays for Tennessee next year.

How appealing is that to any offensive coordinator UT is pursuing?

Not only that, but Tennessee’s new OC will be calling plays against some of the toughest competition in the country. The Vols have to play Alabama, Georgia, and Florida every season. That’s not ideal for any play-caller, let alone someone who will be taking over an offense as downtrodden as UT’s has been. But it’s not just those three teams that should give an offensive coordinator pause.

Next season, Tennessee will be facing six defenses that are currently in the top 25 in points allowed per game in 2018. Mississippi State (2nd), Alabama (5th), Kentucky (7th), Georgia (14th), Florida (20th), and BYU (24th) are all on UT’s schedule next season.

You also have to consider the situation a potential new OC is walking into from a staff chemistry perspective. Tennessee has just one spot they’re trying to fill on their staff right now. Pruitt isn’t trying to fill multiple coaching vacancies right now; whoever he brings in as offensive coordinator will be asked to come fit in to who UT already has on staff on offense.

It’s very rare that a coordinator isn’t allowed to come into a school and bring in at least one or two coaches he wants to work with. That was reportedly a problem when Tennessee was pursuing then-Houston offensive coordinator Kendal Briles. Briles reportedly wanted to bring along his offensive line coach, Randy Clements, to coach with him if he left Houston. But Pruitt doesn’t want to move on from offensive line coach Will Friend after just one season, and that became a problem.

Briles is now the offensive coordinator at Florida State, and Clements is expected to join him on the Seminoles’ staff.

Vol fans saw firsthand in 2016 what happens when a coordinator is brought in and isn’t allowed to have coaches he knows and trusts join him on staff. Butch Jones hired Bob Shoop to be his defensive coordinator, but Shoop wasn’t allowed to bring anyone with him on staff. He had to coach his style of defense with the coaches UT already had on staff.

The result? Shoop, who has had success everywhere else he’s been, had a historically bad first season as UT’s defensive coordinator. There were other factors involved in that, yes. But a large part of it was lack of staff chemistry. Shoop had his way of teaching techniques and his own defensive jargon while Tennessee’s other defensive coaches had completely different ways of teaching and speaking.

And all that coupled with a rash of injuries spelled doom for Tennessee’s defense in 2016.

Tennessee could end up having a few more changes to their staff this offseason once it’s all said and done, but right now — at least publicly — they only have one main opening, and that’s at offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach.

Pruitt also seems to want someone as his OC who is a solid recruiter and really values that aspect of the college game. That even further narrows his potential list of candidates because not every coordinator is as concerned with recruiting as they are play-calling.

Then there’s the fact that most of the proven and very effective play-callers in college football are head coaches. With very few exceptions, most of the highly-regarded offensive minds in the college game are already head coaches at other schools. Tennessee isn’t going to pull away a head coach to come call plays right now. If they were having the type of success a program like Alabama, Clemson, or Oklahoma is having, then maybe they could. Maybe they could pull away a head coach of a Group of Five school or a struggling Power Five school to come call plays for them.

But Tennessee isn’t in that position. Tennessee has had one of the worst offenses in the SEC over the last two seasons, has gone a combined 9-15 over the last two years, and has lost 19 of the last 32 games they’ve played.

Jeremy Pruitt needs to make the right hire as his next offensive coordinator, because he clearly didn’t make the right choice with Tyson Helton. He never seemed to trust Helton, and it showed as the season wore on.

Pruitt needs to find someone who he’s comfortable turning the offense over to, and that someone needs to be able to get creative and call plays to overcome UT’s deficiencies.

But given all the factors stated above and the qualifications Pruitt wants in his OC, he may not be able to afford to be extremely selective. Beggars can’t be choosers, and like it or not, Tennessee resembles a beggar more than a someone with the luxury of being picky right now.

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