COLUMBIA, S.C. — Butch Jones warned us.
Many rolled their eyes when Jones said Tennessee’s final five games would be more of a grind than the first seven, but the Vols coach knew of what he spoke.
“We talked about how this was going to be more taxing than the first seven weeks of the season, I meant that,” Jones said after South Carolina won 24-21 against Tennessee on Saturday night. “It’s going to be a grind. Everyone hears the clutter and distractions.”
Tennessee is on a three-game losing streak, tough times have arrived, and now Jones must make tough decisions.
It’s not as easy as it sounds for a player’s coach like Jones, who truly works hard to please people.
If anything, Jones tries too hard to appease fans and players.
But if history is an indicator, Jones will make the difficult decisions that need to be made.
Throughout his 10 years as a head coach, Jones has won as many or more regular-season games than the season before at the same school he has coached.
Here are five suggestions — tough decisions — for Jones moving forward:
1. Name Derek Barnett captain
Said it last week, and I’ll say it again after Barnett’s 3-sack game, this move needs to be made. Yes, it’s merely symbolic, but when three of your four captains are taking the coin flip in street clothes, there’s an issue. Barnett is worthy of being named captain midseason, and it would send a message.
2. Start John Kelly
Jones likes to talk about competing every day in practice, but the truth is Jalen Hurd has not had to compete in practices for his carries. Hurd might be injured, he might not, but Kelly has become the better back, and the starting lineup and workload moving forward needs to reflect that.
3. Free offensive coordinator Mike DeBord
Jones’ offense has brought him great success, but it has become somewhat predictable. South Carolina coach Will Muschamp was a step ahead all night, and Jones needs to allow DeBord to expand the playbook and do some different things. Jones sits in the offensive meeting rooms, and he’s a good enough coach to know when changes need to be made — provided he doesn’t allow his pride to get in the way.
4. Move Jonathan Kongbo
Kongbo is still 0-for-the-SEC when it comes to tackles in conference games. At 6-foot-6 and 284 pounds, Kongbo is a physical force who was ranked the No. 1 JUCO prospect for a reason. Jones apologized for the player last week and said he was getting settled. It’s time for Kongbo to earn his scholarship where Tennessee needs him: inside at defensive tackle, where he can help the team win. Kongbo isn’t making an impact at the well-stocked end position. If Kongbo gives Tennessee an ultimatum to play him outside, Jones must make another tough decision in the best interest of the program.
5. Allow Tyler Byrd DB reps
Jones uses his defensive backs on special teams to a fault, but he’s overly protective of the receivers in that respect. That offensive-coach mentality needs to change on account of the circumstances. Tennessee needs help in the secondary, where it has lost two starting cornerbacks, and with Evan Berry out, two starting safeties. Byrd is a mega-talent and easily could be plugged into select situations and maintain his role on offense.