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Upgrade/Downgrade: Evaluating Offseason Staff Changes

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Pruitt did some reshuffling over the past couple of months.

Charlotte v Tennessee Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

Year 1 of the Jeremy Pruitt era was a mixed bag. Nobody is happy with the 5-7 season results, but the flashes of brilliance and monster finish in recruiting has brought a much-needed optimism to Knoxville.

Oddly enough, the coaching changes that have occurred since December have gone a long way in providing some of that optimism. Usually getting rid of a coach is a sign of things gone wrong, but Tennessee seems to have addressed multiple issues with their staff changes. The worrying parts appear fixed and the okay parts seem upgraded.

We listed the notable changes to the Tennessee staff and gave a ruling on what they mean. Overall, Tennessee has set itself up for a strong rebound in 2019.

Offensive Coordinator

Change: Tyson Helton —> Jim Chaney

Ruling: Slight Upgrade

Bear with me for a second here. As exciting as it was to poach Jim Chaney from Georgia, we should look at the coaching change objectively. Forget the name-brand recognition and the element of SEC rivalry. What does Chaney bring that Tyson Helton did not?

The biggest upgrade comes in proven work. Chaney boasts over two decades of experience as an offensive coordinator at various schools across the country. He might not top the current list of innovative coordinators in today’s game, but he has a very high floor wherever he goes. You know what you’re getting when Chaney gets hired by your team. Compare this to Tyson Helton, who showed flashes of progression, yet struggled to put forth consistent gameplans. He also did not have an extensive list of results to point at.

Where fans run the risk of being disappointed is expecting a wholesale change in offensive playcalling. Chaney’s system at Georgia was pretty vanilla as far as most systems go. When your offensive line and your offensive skill positions are loaded with talent, you can afford to keep it simple. Tennessee is working their way towards that, but they are still just one year into an improved recruiting effort by Pruitt. Chaney’s immediate results probably won’t be too different from Helton’s.

That being said, nobody cares about the complexity of a system if it cannot move the ball down field. If Chaney’s simplicity helps the Volunteers score points and win games, it will not matter how creative he can get.

Running Backs

Change: Chris Weinke —> David Johnson

Ruling: No Change

A running backs coach position is a recruiting position. As in, most staffs use the spot for someone whose priority is not coaching, who could utilize the time more effectively in recruiting. This is because running backs typically do not need much development.

Neither Weinke or Johnson are exceptional coaches, but both have a good track record on the recruiting trail. Johnson flexed his muscles this cycle by helping grab Eric Gray and Ramel Keyton, the two highest ranked skill position players in the class. Weinke brought in guys like Brian Maurer, Warren Burrell, and Chris Akporoghene. The effect of either getting the position is not too pronounced.

Wide Receivers

Change: David Johnson —> Tee Martin

Ruling: Upgrade

All respect towards David Johnson for doing well with the receivers in 2018, and he is in prime position to do well at running backs coach. This ruling isn’t a slight at him—it’s simply being honest about what Tee Martin brings to the staff.

Martin is a good receivers coach who is an absolute dynamite recruiter. In terms of coaching prowess, him and Johnson are pretty much equal. When it comes to getting talent however, there are few in the game better than Martin. His track record is incredible. A quick look at his 247 page lists him as a recruiter for 11 5-star recruits, 10 other top-100 recruits, and 15 other blue chip players.

Granted, that is not completely accurate, but it does a good job of capturing what made Martin so coveted at USC. He simply knows how to recruit at an elite level. It would be foolish to expect him to replicate that level of success at Tennessee (USC is in a unique position), but he will absolute be making waves in the SEC.

Defensive Backs

Change: Terry Fair/Charles Kelly —> Derrick Ansley

Ruling: Major Upgrade

Arguably the best offseason move entailed grabbing Derrick Ansley as the defensive backs coach. When the news broke that Terry Fair had been let go by Tennessee, the ensuing 30 minutes were full of rampant speculation. First Charles Kelly had left for Alabama, and now Tennessee was getting rid of Fair? What exactly was the plan at defensive back?

Ansley’s name was a stunner for a variety of reasons. The main one being that he had recently moved up to the NFL as the defensive backs coach for the Oakland Raiders. Typically coaches like to try their hand in the league for at least a few seasons before heading back to college. Not so far Ansley, whose results at Alabama in 2016 and 2017 had earned him an upgrade. Somehow Pruitt was able to convince him to return to Tennessee.

Ansley’s coaching prowess is not in question. While it is fair to wonder how much development is due to Pruitt and how much is due to Ansley, it is also accepted that the two work very well together. Ansley knows the system and he knows what Pruitt likes. That is an exciting prospect when one considers that Tennessee had two freshman standouts at cornerback and good talent at safety. If everything works out like it’s supposed to, the Vols could see a second year jump in the defensive secondary.

Bonus - Defensive Coordinator and Playcalling

Change: Kevin Sherrer/Jeremy Pruitt —> Derrick Ansley

Ruling: Unknown

When Ansley was hired, most assumed that Pruitt would retain defensive playcalling duties. However, Pruitt confirmed in press conferences that Ansley would be calling plays, since he is familiar with Pruitt and what he likes to run. Does this indicate that Pruitt will take a more CEO-level approach to the program?

Maybe. We are not accusing Pruitt of lying, but it is an open question about how much flexibility Ansley will have with said playcalling. It’s also a given that Pruitt will take over on certain situations or whenever he feels that he has a better read on the opposing team. Still, Ansley is very experienced and has enough results to give Pruitt confidence in his ability.

It is hard to project how this change will affect the results for the upcoming season. If it is like everything else on the list, it will probably benefit the team.