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Who Should the Vols Target to Replace David Johnson?

(Photo via Brian Perroni/247Sports)

Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt has a vacancy to fill on his coaching staff. So who will he go after?

Running backs coach David Johnson elected to take a position on Mike Norvell’s staff at Florida State over the weekend, passing on the Vols’ counter-offer to the Seminoles’ deal. With that move, Pruitt must find a new coach to take Johnson’s spot.

On an appearance on “The Nation” on WNML on Sunday night, Pruitt detailed what he’s looking for in a new running backs coach.

“We’ll be looking for a guy that, number one, is a good person, that the players come first, that he wants to help them grow and develop as student-athletes on and off the field,” Pruitt explained. “(We want a) guy that’s a good recruiter, good staff guy, that can coach his position, bring something in special teams, and wants to be at the University of Tennessee.”

So by Pruitt’s description, Tennessee’s next running backs coach needs to be a good recruiter, needs to have a track record of developing players at his position, and needs to bring something to the staff in terms of special teams.

With that in mind, here are some names to consider for the Vols’ vacant running backs coach position.

Jay Graham, Texas A&M

The top name on pretty much everyone’s list, Jay Graham will likely be the Vols’ top coach they pursue for their coaching staff vacancy. Graham was an All-SEC running back for the Vols during his playing days from 1993-96, and he was a graduate assistant at UT in 2005 and returned for a season as the Vols’ running backs coach in 2012 as well. He’s since coached at Florida State and is currently at Texas A&M.

As a coach, Graham has helped mentor some of the top running backs in the SEC and ACC in recent years. At Tennessee, he helped the Vols’ rushing attack go from dead last in the SEC at 90.1 yards a game to 160.3 yards a game in 2012. At Florida State, he coached future NFL running backs Dalvin Cook (an All-American), Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr., and Karlos Williams. In his first year at Texas A&M in 2018, he helped Aggie running back Trayveon Williams break records at College Station with his 2,038 all-purpose yards and 1,760 rushing yards. This season, starting running back Jashaun Corbin suffered a season-ending injury, but Isaiah Spiller filled in admirably with 946 yards and 10 touchdowns on 174 carries while also adding 203 receiving yards.

Though a great coach, does Graham have the recruiting chops that Pruitt is looking for? Graham is no slouch as a recruiter, but would he be an upgrade over what David Johnson did during his two years at UT?

Graham is currently making $550,000 annually at Texas A&M and is listed as the co-offensive coordinator along with his running backs coach title.

Joe Osovet, Tennessee 

Osovet is currently on Tennessee’s staff as the Director of Programming for Football. Right now, Osovet’s role is as an off-field assistant, and many believe it’s only a matter of time before he receives an on-field role somewhere. Why not at Tennessee?

Though not as directly as the Vols’ main assistant coaches, Osovet has been pivotal in Tennessee’s recruiting efforts under Jeremy Pruitt, especially in the JUCO ranks. Before joining Tennessee’s staff in a support role, Osovet was a superb head coach at the junior college level, winning Coach of the Year and helping most notably ASA College to some eye-popping offensive numbers.

Osovet already knows Pruitt’s system and Jim Chaney’s offense, but how good of a recruiter can he be outside of identifying JUCO prospects? Is he ready to recruit at the SEC level? If the answer is “yes,” then Pruitt may elect to promote within for this position.

Bryan McClendon, South Carolina 

One of the more interesting names to keep an eye on if Tennessee doesn’t add Jay Graham, Bryan McClendon just recently got a demotion at South Carolina and might be looking to skip town in what looks like a potential sinking ship under Will Muschamp.

McClendon has been the Gamecocks’ offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach the last two seasons and was their co-OC starting in 2016, but it was announced after the Gamecocks’ disappointing 2019 season that McClendon would be stripped of his play-calling duties but would be retained as receivers coach. McClendon made $1 million this past season as the Gamecocks’ OC.

The former Georgia wide receiver served as the Bulldogs’ running backs coach from 2009-14 before being promoted to assistant head coach/wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator in 2015. He served as Georgia’s interim head coach in the Bulldogs’ TaxSlayer Bowl victory in 2015 after Mark Richt was let go.

McClendon is known as a recruiting ace, winning the 247Sports Recruiter of the Year in 2014 while at Georgia. He was in the top 25 of 247Sports’ rankings for the 2018 cycle as well. Pruitt and McClendon worked together at Georgia.

Montario Hardesty, Charlotte 

Just like with Jay Graham, Montario Hardesty is a former Vol running back who performed at a high level while at Tennessee from 2005-09. But unlike Graham, Hardesty is a new name in the coaching world.

Hardesty is currently the wide receivers coach at Charlotte and has served at that position for one season. Before that, he was an offensive quality control coach in an off-field role at Tennessee in 2018. He was also the running backs coach and special teams coordinator at Norfolk State and coached running backs at Florida Atlantic under Lane Kiffin.

While Hardesty is viewed as an up-and-coming coach right now, coaching running backs and recruiting day in and day out in the SEC might not be in the cards. He would be a cheaper option for sure, and his ceiling is potentially very high. Right now, though, coming to Tennessee as a position coach might be too early. But he should be a name to watch in the future.

Des Kitchings, N/A

Though he last coached in the SEC 10 years ago, Des Kitchings proved himself as a good position coach in the ACC at NC State over the last few years.

Kitchings was the co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach for the Wolfpack, and he had been on staff at NC State since 2012. Kitchings was not retained after the 2019 season as head coach Dave Doeren made sweeping changes to his coaching staff after the Wolfpack’s 4-8 season.

After taking over as running backs coach for NC State, the Wolfpack experienced a wealth of success on the ground. The 2014 squad posted the fourth-most rushing yards in a single season in school history, totaling 2,659 yards. The next year, NC State had the fifth-most rushing yards in a year as a team with 2,627 yards. From 2016 through 2018, NC State had a 1,000-yard rusher each season, marking only the second time in school history the Wolfpack have had a 1,000-yard rusher in three-straight seasons.

With Kitchings currently on the market, it’ll be interesting to see if Tennessee comes calling. Kitchings last coached in the SEC in 2010 at Vanderbilt and spent three years with the Commodores, serving as running backs coach and special teams coordinator in 2008-09 then being promoted to offensive coordinator in 2010.

Kitchings didn’t do a bad job recruiting to NC State, but recruiting in the ACC is much different than recruiting in the SEC. That could be a hang up.

Last year, Kitchings made just under $500,000 with NC State ($492,500).

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