NASHVILLE — Mike DeBord often has been a lightning rod for criticism during his two seasons as Tennessee's offensive coordinator.
He looks back with pride at his work with the Volunteers.
DeBord was out of coaching when his former offensive coordinator at Central Michigan, Butch Jones, tabbed him to run Tennessee's offense after Mike Bajakian left for the NFL after the 2014 season. Despite questionable moments, it's hard to argue with the Vols' production on offense heading into today's Music City Bowl against No. 24 Nebraska.
"I was excited, obviously," DeBord recalled Thursday. "I was in a position, really, where I was going to be very particular in where I went and who I worked for and everything. Everybody knows it — Butch and I had a relationship before that and we had worked together, and I've always had a great respect for him. We've got a great friendship. I wanted to come help him if I could help him. That's the way I kind of told him. 'I don't want to be your coordinator if you don't feel like I can help you move this offense along.' As I look back at these last two years, I'm proud of what our coaches and our players have done offensively.
"Going back to two years ago, we were the second rushing team in the conference, and then this past year, what we did as far as being second in the offense in scoring and one of the best in the red zone — things like that, I'm really proud of what we've been able to accomplish. There's been things we haven't done, and you always go back and look at that and say, 'How do we get better at that?' That's for another day, but I've really enjoyed this past season with these guys, just continuing to work and get better this season. It's been a good year."
Next year, though, Tennessee's offense will look very different. Quarterback Josh Dobbs will play his final college game today. Running back Alvin Kamara, who has excelled as the featured back after the puzzling departure of linchpin Jalen Hurd, is expected to enter the NFL draft. Wide receiver Josh Malone, with 852 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, also is leaning toward turning pro.
There has been speculation DeBord could retire after this season, as well as reported interest between Tennessee and former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, who was fired a month ago. Even if DeBord does return, the Vols will look different on offense next season simply because Dobbs won't be manning its controls as Tennessee breaks in an unproven quarterback.
"I've reflected on it, and obviously there's been some high times and there's been some tough times," Dobbs said earlier this week. "I'm thankful for both ends of the spectrum, whether it was on or off the field. I know all the things I've gone through at Tennessee, they definitely have prepared me for the future and things to come in my life. I'm definitely thankful for the wonderful opportunities I've had here."
Dobbs hasn't always been perfect, but it's worth considering where the Vols would be without him. For all the criticism of his passing accuracy and turnover troubles, with a win against Nebraska, Dobbs can finish with a 22-9 record the past three seasons — all while being the focal point of every opponent's defensive game plan.
"Anytime you look at an opponent, you start with the personnel, and obviously Tennessee has very good personnel," Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker said. "I think the only thing that's held them back has been consistency. Their injuries cost them over the course of the season.
"But everything starts with the quarterback, both in the run game and pass game and his leadership. Everything goes through him, so we've made a big awareness of that, right down to the operation of the game with plays coming in from the sideline and the tempo of the offense. Everything starts with his capabilities and what he means to the offense."
Though Dobbs may have used the increased down time he has had this month to look back at his career with the Vols, his focus this week has been on the Huskers, and it's been easy for him to concentrate on going out with a win in his finale simply because it's how he's wired.
"I don't really think like that," he said. "I just think ahead. I don't really like to look back, because you can't change the past. You only can change the future.
"I look ahead and look at what is there still to do, and I have another opportunity to play for the University of Tennessee, for my reputation and for the seniors' reputation, and go out and compete to the highest level I can. I'm trying to make the most of every opportunity I have, and I'll be ready to go on Friday."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.