One of the things we do as fans is form increasingly concrete opinions of coaches: “That’s just who he is.” The very best at this game continue to evolve: Nick Saban doesn’t just win because he recruits the best players, his philosophy continues to adapt. Last year the Tide won by running Derrick Henry 26 times per game. This year the team leader in rushing attempts is the quarterback.
Butch Jones is a bowl game away from concluding his tenth season as a head coach and fourth in a power five conference. The sample size isn’t small, but at 48 years old Jones should still have plenty of opportunity in front of him. In the midst of a disappointing finish with some believing the concrete has dried and Jones will not rise to something more than eight or nine wins at Tennessee, it’s important to consider how Jones has adapted in the past and, in the same way, how he might continue to grow in the future.
On our podcast this year my colleague Joel Hollingsworth has repeatedly stated his belief that Jones is a tweaker: small adjustments over drastic change, aiming to fix something without breaking something else. It’s a more conservative approach, but as we saw with this season’s offense it doesn’t have to always lead to conservative football.
That was a complaint last year, and a valid one: the hiring of Mike DeBord as offensive coordinator followed by a season featuring little downfield passing and Tennessee blowing fourth quarter leads in part due to unimaginative play-calling. The day before the 2016 season started, we thought it was more likely the Vols would find success through an improved, potentially-elite defense and the same conservative offense than an explosive downfield passing game suddenly manifesting itself.
We were quite wrong about that elite defense, but just as wrong about what could and couldn’t happen in DeBord’s (and Butch’s) offense.
Consider some of the biggest problems of 2015 and the biggest questions coming into 2016: can the Vols close out a game in the fourth quarter? Is Josh Dobbs good enough as a passer? Will Tennessee ever find consistency at wide receiver? Why aren’t we more explosive?
The answers Dobbs provided were ultimately and unfortunately overshadowed by the on-field results. Tennessee didn’t throw it more often - Dobbs averaged 26.5 attempts per game in 2015 and 26.6 this season - but his numbers improved significantly. Last year Dobbs averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, 80th nationally. This year he’s at 8.3 yards per attempt, 26th nationally. In November he led the nation in completion percentage (80.2%) and was second in yards per attempt (11.3). He threw as many touchdowns this season (26) as he did in his first three years combined.
He was helped by consistency clearly and finally emerging at wide receiver. Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings are statistically one of the best receiving duos of not just the post-Fulmer era, but the post-Manning era.
Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson had the benefit of playing with Tyler Bray in an offense that threw the ball 40 times a game. But Malone beat them both in yards per catch (18.9), eighth nationally among players with 40+ catches this year. And Jennings out-did Hunter’s 2012 year at 15.3 yards per catch. Their 17 combined touchdowns are the most for any duo in the post-Fulmer era.
You don’t put up numbers like that without increased explosiveness: last year the Vols were 53rd nationally in 20+ yard plays with 63 in 13 games. This year the Vols are 19th with 73 in the first 12 games.
In the tweaking one thing without breaking another department, on the surface you could argue the Vols fixed their fourth quarters while breaking their first quarters. But inside the numbers that’s really only true defensively: in Tennessee’s advanced statistical profile at Football Study Hall the Vols were ranked #3 in first quarter offense last year and #56 in fourth quarter offense. This year the Vols ended the regular season ranked #1 in fourth quarter offense, but were still #14 in the first quarter. In clutch moments the Vols made the plays to win against Appalachian State, Florida, and Georgia while turning close games against Kentucky and Missouri into blowouts.
Of course, there’s another side of the ball. Tennessee was #95 in first quarter defense and #117 in fourth quarter defense. When we talk about adjustments and adaptations for next year, that’s much of where we’ll start. The Vols will also be without the quarterback responsible for 22 of Jones’ 29 wins in Knoxville. But as we enter into the all-important discussion of what changes Jones needs to make to be successful at Tennessee, it does offer some encouragement to remember the changes the Vols made this season. I would also submit that, aside from learning how to respond to a catastrophic injury situation, this was also Jones’ first go-round with a team carrying so much talent and such high expectations. I would imagine he learned a bit about how to manage those personalities and expectations, and will be interested to see what adjustments he makes in those departments as well.
The prime suspects in Tennessee’s loss to Texas A&M and non-competitiveness against Alabama - turnovers and injuries - are easy to identify but harder to eliminate from a coaching standpoint. It’s the later losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt that carried more weight and more consequences, and while the personality issues with Jalen Hurd may have been a factor in Columbia, the defense’s play shoulders the blame in Nashville. Jones already made his most significant adjustment there last off-season in going from John Jancek to Bob Shoop. One of the most important questions Jones must answer this off-season is what further changes are needed on that side of the ball.
Team 121 will be a different team. With so much parity in the cut-throat SEC, the tweaks Jones makes could be the difference between unemployment and a championship.