Coach Butch Jones confident Vols' staff changes will pay off

Coach Butch Jones confident Vols' staff changes will pay off

March 21st, 2017 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Nebraska head coach Mike Riley, left, and Tennessee head coach Butch Jones talk during a news conference Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. Nebraska and Tennessee are scheduled to play in the NCAA college football Music City Bowl Friday. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Photo by Mark Humphrey

KNOXVILLE — In his first four years as Tennessee's head football coach, there were only four changes to Butch Jones' coaching staff.

In this offseason alone, there were five changes, not including the promotion of Larry Scott to offensive coordinator or the hiring of longtime NFL strength coach Rock Gullickson to the same position with the Volunteers.

"It hasn't been a typical offseason," Jones unsurprisingly said to open his Monday news conference kicking off the fifth spring practice of his Tennessee tenure.

Jones has valued stability and continuity in a program that had been hindered by too much coaching turnover, but Tennessee also needed a shakeup after falling short of expectations in 2016.

For all Jones has done to improve the Vols, the past two seasons have been about what they didn't do and the games they didn't win, and now Jones is entering a pivotal season with a much-changed staff.

If that sounds familiar, it's because predecessor Derek Dooley had to replace seven coaches between his second and third (and final) season in 2012, though many of those assistants opted to leave for other college jobs. The only coach from Tennessee's 2016 staff to do that was offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who was heading for retirement until Indiana called him and offered him the chance to return to his home state.

Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez was jettisoned, offensive line coach Don Mahoney's contract wasn't renewed, wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni left for an NFL job and defensive line coach Steve Stripling moved into an off-field role.

Tennessee added a former head coach in Brady Hoke to replace Stripling and relied on Scott's ties to hire a full-time quarterbacks coach in Mike Canales and tab Kevin Beard to replace Azzanni, and Walt Wells' familiarity with the offensive linemen from his support-staff role and midstate recruiting ties led to his promotion in Mahoney's place.

Charlton Warren had no ties to Jones or defensive coordinator Bob Shoop but wowed in the interview processo to become the new secondary coach.

Jones is hoping the new energy and excitement and fresh perspective from the new coaches translates into wins.

"As a leader it's always difficult to make changes, and you're in constant evaluation of your program and what you need," he said. "Each team is different and each year is different, and I've been excited about the staff. I think the chemistry has been there almost instantaneously. We've done a great job of really spending quality time together.

"I think any time you add individuals that have the experiences that they have, it lends itself to creative thinking, maybe some new ideas, some new energy. And again I think it's also been verified that we're doing the right things in this program, and that individuals want to be a part of this football program."

Jones already was raving Monday about Gullickson's impact. He said his longtime friend — their relationship dates back to their paths crossing at Rutgers in the early 1990s — has made a "monumental difference in our football program" during offseason workouts. Players also have praised Gullickson highly.

"You're going to see a much stronger, a much bigger, a much more explosive football team," Jones said.

Tennessee's later-than-usual start to spring practice avoided the interruption of the university's spring break and afforded the players a full eight weeks to maximize their time with Gullickson, but it also allowed for more time for the integration of the new coaches through lengthy daily meetings.

Jones believes the changes will pay off next season, and that process begins with today's opening practice.

"I think it's been invigorating for our players," he said. "They have an opportunity — everyone has a clean slate. You're responsible for creating your identity both on the field and off the field of how you win every day. These players can walk in, and it doesn't matter what you've done in the past good, bad or indifferent. You have that opportunity to reinvent yourself.

"You have that opportunity to really be responsible for what you create on a daily basis, and it's been great. It's been great for me to hear different perspectives. Again, I think the chemistry's been good. They've been a great fit. Here's the thing, they all want to be here, and they understand the standard and the expectation that comes about with Tennessee football.

"I've been very, very pleased."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.