At his introductory press conference, new University of Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones promised that he'd hire the best college football coaching staff in America.
That remains to be seen on the football field, but Jones reportedly completed his inaugural Volunteers staff Friday night with the hiring of Wisconsin wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni, according to Madison.com.
The article states that Azzanni made a "strong impression," going on to say that:
Two of UW’s top three receivers this year, redshirt freshman Jordan Fredrick and sophomore Chase Hammond, had no playing experience going into this season.
Azzanni coached with Jones at Central Michigan and looks at him as being a mentor. In the past few years, Azzanni has bounced around while trying to surge up the coaching ranks. He latched on early with Urban Meyer and then Jones, and he's been a member of both coaches' staff. Here's a really good feature on the young coach, detailing his rising star status. His most notable job was Florida's wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator under Meyer in 2009-10. After Meyer left Florida, Azzanni was Western Kentucky's offensive coordinator for a year.
He is known for being a good recruiter and brought four-star James Louis to the Gators during his season recruiting. Several of the feature stories on him note his propensity to develop talent, going all the way back to when he was a young assistant head coach under Jones at Central Michigan to tutoring the No. 4-ranked receiving corps in the nation at Bowling Green in 2004 through his last few jobs. He also coached NFL star Antonio Brown at Central Michigan. Most of the early reports indicate Azzanni will stay at Wisconsin to coach in the Rose Bowl before coming to UT. If that's the case, the Vols are a few coaches short on the recruiting trail.
Azzanni will be hired on the heels of former UT legend Tee Martin turning down Jones and the Vols earlier this week to remain at his job at USC under Lane Kiffin.
While it remains to be seen if Jones' staff is the best in the country, it will certainly be one that is familiar with each other. Scroll to the bottom of the roster for bios on each new head coach, but here are brief bios on the coaches who have coached with Jones in the past.
- Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian: He's coming with Jones from Cincinnati , and he has worked under Jones for six years in the same position [three at Central Michigan and three at Cincinnati]. Prior to that, he was offensive quality control/wide receivers for the Chicago Bear and coached in a Super Bowl.
- Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach John Jancek. Here's a really good video interview Jancek did with UTSports.com. He has spent the past three seasons as Cincy's DC, and the Bearcats were 12th in the nation in scoring defense this year. Prior to that, he was a co-defensive coordinator at Georgia and a linebackers coach under Brian Van Gorder before that.
- Defensive line coach Steve Stripling. One of the strong things about Stripling's resume is he's been to 22 bowl games in 30 years of playing and coaching. He has been DL coach under Jones the past three years, served as Central Michigan interim head coach when Jones left for Cincinnati and is doing the same for Cincinnati. He's been a DL coach for Michigan, Michigan State and Louisville. He's also coached at North Carolina, Northern Illinois and Indiana.
- Tight ends coach Mark Elder. Elder is a young guy who recruited Tennessee for Jones while at Cincinnati. He has coached a variety of positions under Jones in both head coaching stints dating back to 2007 and is known for being a solid recruiter.
- Offensive line coach Don Mahoney. Known for being an excellent Xs and Os coach when it comes to the zone-blocking scheme. He has been an integral part of the success of Jones' system, coaching with him dating back to 2007. Mahoney also was Tulane's offensive line coach for a season. He will be replacing Sam Pittman, in my opinion, one of the best offensive line coaches in the nation.
- Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni. A Jones and Meyer coaching disciple, Azzanni drew rave reviews in stops at Wisconsin, Florida, Central Michigan and Bowling Green. He's had a wealth of experience at a very young age and is considered a respected developer of talent and recruiter.
- Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Dave Lawson. That's LAWSON, not CLAWSON. Breathe easy, Vols fans. The good news is this is Jones' guy, and you always want confidence and continuity with your strength coach. The bad news is this has been a revolving door at UT recently, and that has caused a negative effect on the football field.
Thankfully, Jones kept Tennessee legendary running back Jay Graham on staff. Graham came to Knoxville after tutoring Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina and immediately turned one of the most putrid rushing teams in the nation a season ago into a respectable unit, developing Raijon Neal and Marlin Lane into pretty good SEC running backs. Basically, Knoxville may have burned to the ground if Jones had let Graham go, so, thankfully, that didn't happen.
Jones also went out and got a couple of coaches who are known as being well-respected coaches or recruiters and were employed at Auburn last year.
- Cornerbacks coach Tommy Thigpen. Renowned for his recruiting abilities, Thigpen has hit the ground running on the trail for UT. He coached the past four years at Auburn where he won the BCS National Championship Game and helped bring a boat-load of talent. He also coached linebackers at North Carolina (his alma mater), Tennessee State and Illinois as well as cornerbacks at Bowling Green.
- Safeties coach Willie Martinez. At one time, Martinez was one of the most well-respected defensive backs coach in the nation, enjoying wild success as a coach and recruiter at Georgia. He was an awful defensive coordinator at UGA following Van Gorder's departure and was eventually run out of town on a rail. He coached defensive backs successfully at Oklahoma for three years before coming back to Auburn to coach under buddy Van Gorder last year. Needless to say, his one season on the Plains didn't work out well.
The Vols don't have all those guys on the recruiting trail yet, but they're a core group of guys who've been around the same stomping grounds and know each other. Thigpen has been at Bowling Green along with Azzanni. Martinez -- like many of the coaches -- did stints at Central Michigan, though not at the same time.
Now, it's time for them to go prove they can recruit with the big boys and try to live up to Jones' prediction of the best staff in the country. Go Vols!