Vols led nation in missed starts last two seasons

Tennessee's Evan Berry (29) is helped up by trainers and head coach Butch Jones. Berry left the game with a injury. The Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles visited the Tennessee Volunteers in NCAA football action at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on November 5, 2016.
photo Tennessee head coach Butch Jones kneels with Eli Wolf as quarterback Quinten Dormady (12) checks on him after being injured on a play in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Indiana State, Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE - Data compiled by Phil Steele shows just how woeful Tennessee's bout with injuries became as Butch Jones' once-promising tenure came crashing to an end.

Steele's annual college football preview magazine, which hit newsstands this month, lists Tennessee as the team that dealt with the most "lost starts" in 2017.

According to Steele's calculation, would-be Tennessee starters missed a combined total of 58 games in 2017, edging Ball State by one and Florida by nine for the national lead in the cringe-worthy category.

It was the second season in a row the Volunteers led the nation in lost starts, according to Steele's formula, which also includes starts lost because of disciplinary reasons.

Tennessee suffered its first eight-loss season in program history in 2017, and Jones was fired with two games remaining on the schedule.

New head coach Jeremy Pruitt reportedly has installed a new head football trainer in Jeronimo Boche, who was on staff at Florida State during Pruitt's season as the defensive coordinator there in 2013.

An April 27 termination letter for Boche's predecessor, John Burnside, who was hired by Jones, offers no explanation for Burnside's termination.

Stemming the tide of injuries and successfully rehabilitating those who are injured in 2018 will be important for the Vols if they are to reach bowl eligibility in Pruitt's inaugural season.

One key Tennessee player dealing with an offseason health issue seems to be trending in a positive direction. Sophomore offensive lineman Trey Smith, recently named one of college football's top 100 players by Sports Illustrated, received some encouraging words from Pruitt during the coach's appearance on WJOX in Birmingham on Friday.

"We'll be excited to get him back on the field this fall," Pruitt told the station.

Smith was Tennessee's only offensive lineman to start all 12 games in 2017, but he missed all of spring practice due to unspecified health reasons.

Programs with 34 or more lost starts in the previous season improved their record 56.3 percent of the time over the last 11 years, according to Steele. Tennessee bucked that trend in 2017 by regressing from nine wins in an injury-plagued 2016 campaign to four wins in 2017.

Tennessee lost 52 starts due to injury in 2016, when the Vols stumbled down the stretch with losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt that cost them a spot in the SEC championship game and the Sugar Bowl.

Early in his coaching career, Jones conducted a five-year study of injuries to offensive linemen and found high ankle sprains to be the most common injury. But during his five years as Tennessee's head coach, Jones could never pinpoint a cause or even a single recurring ailment to blame for all the games key players missed because of injury.

He even studied the grass at Tennessee in 2016 to try to determine what was causing the rash of injuries.

"Usually, it runs in patterns. The last two years, the bizarre thing is that it hasn't," he said last season.

The only other program to lose 50 or more starts in consecutive seasons since Steele began tracking the stat in 2009 is Colorado State.

The Rams rebounded from consecutive season of poor health to improve from 4-8 in 2012 to 8-6 in 2013.

Contact David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidWCobb and on Facebook at facebook.com/volsupdate.