As the search for a Tennessee offensive coordinator enters its third week, rations are running low and clean water is hard to come by. Winter has hit. The fanbase is starving, and if the new coordinator is not named soon, we fear that a revolt is in our midst.
Dramatic language aside, the 2018 Tennessee offensive coordinator search is a step down (or step up?) from the 2017 head coach fiasco. There is no ulterior drama within the boosters (that we know of), no offers that have sparked on-campus protests, and no national media freak-outs. Baby steps, baby steps.
But the prolonged search is beginning to spark questions about what is truly going on behind the scenes. What exactly is the plan here?
First we thought it was Hugh Freeze. But wait! The boosters are meddling again! Oh wait, it’s actually just Hugh teasing other schools. What about Chip Lindsey? Surely he would go to Tennessee if offered. Well, he is on to Kansas now, guess Tennessee wasn’t seriously considering him. Maybe Dan Enos wants to move on from Alabama? Ah, apparently not. Hey now, Kendal Briles would be a home run hire for productive offense, baggage aside. Nevermind, he feels more comfortable at Florida State. Perhaps Eli Drinkwitz would like to make an upward move. Nevermind, Appalachian State thinks he is head coach material. Well then.
From a pessimist’s point of view, it seems like Tennessee struck out swinging. Heck, the lineup is back around to them and they already have an 0-2 count. Now the betting favorite would likely be an internal hire of some sorts. Will Friend or Joe Osovet are not chopped liver...but man, considering the names you had in play, simply promoting someone already on staff would be seen as a complete failure.
But I am not sure that is the full story
There is a more skeptical view that says this search has been rife with misinformation. Some of this has to do with events after the fact.
One prime example: Hugh Freeze supposedly being interested in three different Power-5 jobs but eventually taking the head coach job at Liberty. Logic dictates that if even one of those schools wanted him badly enough, he would be their offensive coordinator. None of them did and it now looks like the Freeze rumors at both FSU and Tennessee were simply talks. Not genuine all-out attempts to get him in the fold.
A couple others are simply the luck of the draw. Briles’ system is much more similar to Willie Taggart’s at Florida State, so it makes sense that he would prefer to go there. Drinkwitz got the opportunity to improve his career trajectory and be a head coach of a successful Group-of-5 school. Unless Tennessee was willing to shell out a ridiculous amount of money for those two men, it made sense that they went elsewhere.
So I do not think that this search has been an unmitigated disaster for Jeremy Pruitt. I would wager that around half the candidates that have been connected to the job were not primary options in the first place.
The bigger question involves what they are looking for
According to Dave Ubben of The Athletic, Tennessee recently met with three candidates: Kendal Briles, Jeff Lebby, and Mike Yurcich. All three names point to the same conclusion—that Pruitt wants an up-tempo offense that can run you off the field.
But doesn’t that seem a bit odd, considering that he hired Tyson Helton in the first place? Pruitt knows that up-tempo offenses can put a lot of stress on a defense, especially if they are struggling to produce against good defenses. The name of the game for the Tennessee offense in 2018 was ball control. They wanted to keep possession, establish a strong run game, and give their defense plenty of rest.
Hiring any of those three suggests that Pruitt either realized he wanted a big change, or that he was at least interested in the idea.
Nothing too definitive can be said before the hire. Yet from the outside looking in, it would appear that Pruitt doubted or reneged on one of his ideals for Tennessee football after the first year. Perhaps he realized that the defense would take a roster overhaul to hit its stride, and thus it needs an offense capable of winning games. Or maybe he became so interested in a high-powered offense that he realized it was the future of the SEC.
Or maybe he doesn’t know what he wants at all.
Not having an offensive coordinator before Early Signing Day is detrimental.
Do not overthink this one. Any time a big part of your staff is left vacant before signing day, it tends to work against your momentum. It will not down your entire class of course. In Tennessee’s case, it looks like it will not even cause any de-commitments. The way the staff split recruiting duties means that no member of the recruiting class was solely in it for Helton.
The Volunteers are still major contenders for a number of recruits on the offensive side of the ball. 5-star tackle Darnell Wright, 5-star wide receiver Jadon Haselwood, 4-star running back Eric Gray, and 3-star wide receiver Jaylen Ellis are the primary names at this point.
Tennessee is the favorite to sign at least two of those players. But having an offensive coordinator would remove that little bit of uncertainty that is still present with a guy like Gray or Wright. If nothing else, it means you are missing a part of your staff that could help out on the trail. No coach has ever entered a signing day under the impression that missing a coordinator makes no difference.
This will not decide Pruitt’s fate. But it might make his job much easier or much more difficult.
Barring a total unmitigated disaster for the coordinator spot—which would be very hard to do considering even Will Friend and Joe Osovet have decent track records—the plan for Pruitt still includes four years to prove himself. If the hire is a success, everyone forgets this discussion. If it is not, he will make a tough decision, probably after the third or four year. If it has gotten to that point, it is likely that Tennessee has not won enough over the past couple of seasons. That next hire would be the make or break hire.
It might be cliche, but taking the balanced view of the coaching search is probably the most accurate one. There is not mass chaos behind the scenes, nor is there an elaborate master plan. It is a first-time head coach learning lessons about program management.