Zach Azzanni's departure leaves Vols looking for fifth new coach

Zach Azzanni's departure leaves Vols looking for fifth new coach

February 23rd, 2017 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Zach Azzanni

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee will have yet another new assistant coach in its football program for 2017.

Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni, one of the original members of Butch Jones's coaching staff, is leaving the Volunteers for the same position with the NFL's Chicago Bears.

Initially also Tennessee's recruiting coordinator, Azzanni assumed the title of passing game coordinator following the 2015 season, but the Vols twice have changed offensive coordinators and this time promoted tight ends coach Larry Scott.

"We are really excited for Zach and his family," Jones said in a statement. "I have known Zach for a long time and this is a path he has wanted to pursue for some time. We can't thank him enough for his loyalty, dedication and hard work over the past four years to our football program.

"We will begin the process of filling this position immediately. It's a position we want to fill as quickly as we can, but we also want to go through the detailed process, which we will."

Azzanni had agreed to a new two-year deal following the 2016 season, but his $350,000 annual base salary was unchanged, and according to his contract he would owe 33 percent of his salary, though the buyout can be waived by Jones.

After interviewing with the Bears within the past week, Azzanni, who passed up multiple chances to leave the Vols during his four seasons at Tennessee, accepted their offer late Tuesday night and informed his players on Wednesday morning.

Following his playing career at Central Michigan, Azzanni began his coaching career at Bowling Green under Urban Meyer before coaching under Jones for three seasons at his alma mater.

He reunited with Meyer at Florida in 2010, spent the 2011 season as Western Kentucky's receivers coach and offensive coordinator and coached one season at Wisconsin before rejoining Jones at Tennessee.

Tennessee's wide receivers battled injuries while underperforming during Azzanni's first three seasons with the Vols, but Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings starred in 2017. The duo combined for 90 receptions, 1,552 yards and 18 touchdown catches. Malone's breakout season prompted his decision to enter the NFL draft early.

Azzanni was instrumental to Tennessee's 2017 recruiting class, and the Vols were set to feature eight first- or second-year wideouts this upcoming season.

His replacement will be the fifth new assistant coach on Tennessee's staff, not including the promotion of Scott, a first-time coordinator.

As for replacements for Azzanni, here are some potential candidates:

*Dameyune Craig: The former Auburn quarterback has built a strong reputation as a recruiter from his stops at Florida State, Auburn and LSU, but his jettison from LSU earlier this month will require vetting.

*T.J. Weist: Since he was Jones's receivers coach at Cincinnati, Weist twice has been an interim head coach at Connecticut and South Florida and spent one season as an analyst at Michigan. After Willie Taggart took the Oregon job, Weist guided South Florida to a Birmingham Bowl win against South Carolina. Due to his minimal power-conference experience, though, Weist likely won't top Jones's list.

*Kevin Beard: The former Miami wide receiver spent two seasons alongside Scott at his alma mater, where he coached receivers in 2015. Beard was a quality control coach at Georgia last season, but was hired by new Florida International coach Butch Davis in December.

*Chris Beatty: Maryland's receivers coach was on James Franklin's staff at Vanderbilt in 2011, and the former star wideout at East Tennessee State also previously coached at Northern Illinois, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Virginia.

*Joker Phillips: The former Kentucky coach, hired earlier this offseason at Cincinnati after one season with the Cleveland Browns as receivers coach and at Ohio State as a quality control coach, could be looking to get back into the SEC.

He was into his second year at Florida when he was suspended in April 2014 for impermissible contact with a recruit. Two months later, Phillips resigned. The NCAA ruled he committed a Level II violation, which "provide(s) more than a minimal but less than a substantial or extensive" advantage, in February 2015.

More candidates are sure to emerge in the coming days as Jones begins his search

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.