While there is data available in a coach's first couple seasons at a new job, it sometimes takes three seasons before it becomes clear what tendencies are coming from the current administration and which are left over from the previous staff. A third year coach has had plenty of time to install offensive and defensive systems and to stock the team with his own recruits. And while the book is certainly not written on Butch Jones' time at Tennessee, his third year has given Vols fans a much clearer picture of his strengths and weaknesses than they had going into the season.
With that in mind, the Rocky Top Talk staff has split the coaching job into four key categories: recruiting and development (making up the larger category of team-building) and game preparation and in-game coaching (making up the larger category of game coaching). Three years in, what aspects are Jones and company acing, and which ones need improvement?
Before we hear from the staff members, a note on grades. While rampant grade inflation may try to convince you that B is an average grade, it isn't. A is an exemplary grade, meaning there is little room for improvement. B is good, and C is average. Even a C in a category means that a coach is doing most things well in that category, just that the quality is not good enough to make the rest of his job particularly easier (or bad enough to make the rest of his job harder). A D means a coach's performance in a category is making the rest of his job harder, and an F represents complete failure. So with that in mind, what did the staff have to say?
Incipient: A. I considered going with A- here, on the grounds that the 2016 class is currently hovering under the 50% blue chip ratio that has been the benchmark for championship recruiting, but this class isn't in the books yet, and Jones' last two classes have earned the benefit of the doubt. Given what he came into, it's hard to imagine Tennessee's 2014 and 2015 classes being better than they were. Jones has repaired relationships that Dooley tore down, and he has worked tirelessly to pull in two straight recruiting classes ranked in the top seven nationally.
Will: A+. Butch Jones did as good of a job with his first three classes at UT as anyone could have asked, hoped, or dreamed. When we were thinking about Jon Gruden or even Charlie Strong, we were thinking about exactly the kind of classes Jones has brought here. The guys he got/held on to in 2013 like Dobbs, Sutton, and JRM can be cornerstone pieces for this team next year, and to have pulled in the seventh and fourth best classes in the nation in 2014-15 when all we had to show was 5-7 and 7-6 at the end of seven years of irrelevance is simply incredible. Maybe this grade takes half a step back if you ask again in February (Vols are currently 19th with 16 commits), but until that's fully resolved with names on dotted lines I'm inclined to give him the highest marks for the work he's already done here.
Chris: A. I’m a hard grader, since Butch Jones and staff have done a great job re-asserting Tennessee’s talent level. I’ll give them a couple minor dings because they’ve covered some, but not quite as much, ground as they need to for how they develop and coach, and the 2016 class probably needs to come together a bit better than it has so far. Still, we're picking at the margins there.
Hunter: A-. Tennessee is a program with a proud history, a passionate fan base, and a gigantic stadium, but in order to compete, the Vols have to recruit at least 50-60% of the roster from outside of the Volunteer State every year. Butch Jones understands the necessity of recruiting, and he's leveraged UT's resources to find, track, and pursue recruits from Ohio to Texas (and everywhere in between). This year's recruiting class is proving to be a tougher test, but Butch still has the Vols poised to finish in the top 25--and if a few huge players break Tennessee's way, even higher.
Incipient: C. This is the most difficult category to assess after three years, because it works on the longest timeline. But assess it we must. The question I've asked myself is this: has Jones' staff developed players well enough to make up for any deficiencies in other areas (recruiting, game coaching), has development been bad enough that it must be overcome by unusually good performance elsewhere, or has it been somewhere in the middle? And right now, I see it as somewhere in the middle. The staff has certainly made their lives significantly easier with the development of kickers and punters, but that's been the exception. On the whole, there have been some players improving markedly (Coleman Thomas and Jalen Reeves-Maybin come to mind), some who came in with guns blazing and have steadily kept doing their thing (Cameron Sutton, Jalen Hurd, etc.), some outright busts (hi, Dontavius), and others in between. You can pick out development successes and failures, but on average, player development doesn't seem to be an asset or an albatross for this staff. So we'll go with C, with the caveat that there haven't been many grades so far in this class, and the staff has a chance to seriously improve their grade before the final. We'll know a lot more next year when the 2014 recruiting class exchanges the "talented youngsters" label for "experienced upperclassmen."
Will: B-. I feel like this one varies wildly position by position. It's been frustrating to watch Tennessee struggle to develop not just star play-makers but even real consistency at wide receiver despite so many options and recruiting stars. It's been thrilling to watch Tennessee finally get pressure on opposing quarterbacks again and get strong line play not just from the Derek Barnetts of the world but also guys like Jordan Williams. How much credit do we give to the coaching staff for the improvement in the offensive line from 2014 to 2015, or is that simply a byproduct of changing from Worley to Dobbs? Perhaps as we go we'll just continue to bring in five-stars that need less development, but as four-star depth increases I think you'll also have a chance to see players like (hopefully) Dillon Bates who may not show up until their redshirt junior or senior year, but then feel like more of a coaching win. Either way this feels like more of a first nine weeks grade.
Chris: C+. Development on the defensive side of the ball has been good, special teams development has been superb, and the offensive line isn’t quite the giant blinking light flashing TEAM LIABILITY HERE that it was in 2014. That’s balanced against whatever we’re calling the WR corps and a nagging feeling that in some cases guys getting better has just been a natural outcome of experience (i.e., any old staff could’ve done that). Every class is going to have flameouts, but they’ve also done a good job of not breaking anyone with the possible exceptions of, again, the WR corps.
Hunter: B-. If you're an old school football player who believes in hard work and repetition, Butch is the coach for you. Every player who has developed under this coaching staff is cut from same cloth--from J. Williams to Jalen Reeves-Maybin, the coaching staff will help you get bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter (on the football field). Unfortunately, the staff doesn't appear to be very good at figuring out how individuals fit into the overall scheme. From Coleman Thomas playing out of position at right tackle to Justin Coleman being lost in deep coverage, Butch has put players in a position to fail, over and over again. Part of that has to do with roster depth, but still, this coaching staff has a long way to go toward maximizing player potential with scheme.
Incipient: A. Against one of the best defenses in the country in Tuscaloosa, the Vols netted 125 yards on their first two drives. Against Georgia, South Carolina, and Kentucky, they had over 140 yards of offense before the opponent had reached 20. And they jumped out to a double-digit first half lead in Gainesville and opened up a 17-0 lead on playoff-bound Oklahoma. The Vols have led after one eight times this year (and two of the exceptions came due to long defense touchdowns for the other team), and UT has led by double-digits at halftime nine times. It's hard to ask for much more at the beginning of games. Under Jones and company, the Vols have been excellent out of the gate.
Will: A-. This too is trending in the right direction. The Vols were non-competitive in some games in 2013 that they probably never were going to be in, but also struggled in spectacular fashion against teams like Vanderbilt, despite coming off a bye week. I wasn't crazy about some of the things they tried with Worley last year (or Dobbs against Missouri) but that may have been the best option available given our offensive line. But the uptick on successful opening drives with DeBord and the way they opened up leads on Oklahoma, Florida, and Arkansas was very impressive, as was just running the counter play a million times successfully against a good Vanderbilt defense. We knock the risk management stuff sometimes, but it was absolutely the right call on every drive but one against Florida, torched a good Georgia defense all day, and gave us a chance to win at Alabama. There's a part of that answer that we won't get until we see Butch & DeBord with a better passer at quarterback. But I thought they were great from a gameplan standpoint this season.
Chris: B+. Let’s start here: in most games, Butch Jones and the coaching staff have done a great job of scripting the first couple sets of plays. When it comes to taking advantage of what they see on film, they do great. However: I’d hope the coaching staff would be able to recognize the first counterpunch or two. This ties in a bit with the good ol’ rock from in-game coaching, but if you know you’re going to default to the same thing that will get shut down, then, I dunno, write USE MID-RANGE PASSING GAME IN SECOND QUARTER on the back of your hand or something. Or the back of a GA’s hand. Whatever.
Hunter: A-. Butch's initial game plans tend to be excellent, even against top tier opponents. Because halftime adjustments are part of in-game coaching, it's hard to find too much here to be critical about, except that Butch probably threw away a chance at a bowl game in 2013 by failing to maximize the NFL offensive line that Jim Chaney and Sam Pittman left behind. Even then, the skill position players were such a shambles that it's not hard to see why Butch tried to force the offense into his scheme instead of adapting his scheme to the players.
Incipient: D. The staff has certainly done enough good things in-game--the Vols improved in the second half against Vanderbilt, and the Missouri game was well-managed--to give themselves a passing grade, but overall, in-game coaching has been a glaring weakness. From poor timeout management and fourth-down decision-making to failure to respond to the opposition's adjustments to struggles in every aspect of protecting a lead, in-game coaching has consistently dragged the team down, requiring the staff to go above and beyond in the other categories to make up for it.
Will: C-. I will say Butch Jones has been fantastic in keeping Tennessee's players invested and then putting them in position to succeed when the Vols have fallen behind. Against Georgia in 2013, Alabama and South Carolina in 2014, and Georgia in 2015 the Vols could have been blown away and instead rallied to competitiveness and/or victory. Obviously we hope we're getting to the point where we're not falling behind by multiple scores very often, but it's an under-appreciated skill. As we're making game preparation a separate category, much of this grade falls to in-game adjustments and the decisions a head coach makes during those sixty minutes. And much of that memory is colored by what Tennessee did at the end of the Florida game this year, with an assist to Oklahoma. There's also the issue of allowing teams to come downfield against the Vol defense when protecting a lead on the final drive, even in victories like South Carolina and Georgia this year. Some of Tennessee's most frustrating losses have been for multiple coaching reasons - DeBord's risk management stuff wins the Florida game last year but helped lose it this year - and I'm not sure how much of that we should put on Butch Jones. But ultimately what you want to see is progress, and late season performances showed both how the risk management stuff can be the best choice for this offense (Missouri) and can still be good enough to make a splash (Vanderbilt). On the whole I think we've seen significant progress here since the Georgia game, but until it translates into a stronger memory than Gainesville this grade will stay below average for most of the fanbase.
Chris: C. The positive: will hammer away at things that work to build a huge lead. The negative: will hammer away at things that used to work with a huge lead, whittling a huge lead into a much smaller lead. Good ol’ rock. Other than that, Butch Jones’ in-game coaching strategies seem to come from The Big Book Of Mediocre NFL Coaching, that tome of the wildly risk-averse. It drives me insane, but with enough talent, it kinda works. Emphasis here on kinda, since it does result in closer games than necessary. I’d have bigger gripes with this if the player talent trajectory wasn’t a nearly vertical line (i.e., this may matter less in the future than it did in 2015), but it can be effective.
Hunter: C. Butch is conservative and conventional, but the real problem is that he's too slow to adapt to a change in opponent strategy. Maybe it's some sort of Phil Jackson meta-strategy that's supposed to encourage players to develop leadership skills, but it really hurts the Vols when opponents do something that the coaching staff doesn't anticipate. And that, really, is the biggest problem in Butch's coaching-- he doesn't seem to understand that opponents make adjustments at halftime. The coaching staff seems to learn from game-to-game, but within each game, it's pretty much Gameplan A or nothing at all. Really, if Butch could hire Tommy Tuberville to do halftime adjustments, he'd probably be fine.
|Game Prep (15%)||A||A-||B+||A-||A-|
|In-Game Coaching (20%)||D||C-||C||C||C-|
|Game Coaching Average||C+||B-||B-||B-||B-|
While staff opinions diverge on some of the finer details, there is larger consensus about what areas are strengths and which areas are weaknesses. And there is consensus, at least among the RTT staff, about the overall performance of Jones and his staff through three years: it's a solid B--good, but not great. What does that mean for Tennessee going forward. In a league where everyone is trying to measure up to an elite coaching staff in Tuscaloosa, good-but-not-great can drive fans crazy. Just ask Mark Richt. But in a division with no coaches that have proven to be elite, good-but-not-great may be enough to start making regular appearances in the SEC Championship Game. A lot depends on how things shake out elsewhere. But even more depends on how things progress in Knoxville. Does the Vols staff regress? Does it plateau? Or does it get 1% better every day and turn those Bs into As?