Entering the fifth year of running the Tennessee football program, Butch Jones is about to search for his third offensive coordinator.
Mike DeBord, who presided over the Vols offense for the past two seasons, is leaving Knoxville to accept the same position at Indiana, SEC Country’s Mike Griffith confirmed Tuesday (volquest.com first reported the news). Tennessee expected to retain both of its coordinators in 2017, despite a relatively disappointing 9-4 season. But retirement, it should be noted, was reportedly on the table for DeBord. Though his decision was unexpected, the 60-year-old Muncie, Ind., native moves closer to home by joining the Hoosiers.
Back in 2015, the late January departure of DeBord predecessor Mike Bajakian left Tennessee scrambling for a hand to guide its offense. Jones, who spent four years coaching under DeBord at Central Michigan, hired his former boss largely because of their familiarity. But one must now question whether the hire was considered a long-term solution.
“I wanted to come help him if I could help him,” DeBord said, via the Times Free Press of Chattanooga, Tenn.. “That’s the way I kind of told (Jones), ‘I don’t want to be your coordinator if you don’t feel like I can help you move this offense along.’ ”
While it could be argued that DeBord did that at Tennessee — the Vols set a school record for points and touchdowns scored in 2016, despite several key injuries — Josh Dobbs’ lack of improvement as a passer and constant hiccups on the offensive line (DeBord’s area of expertise) kept UT from becoming an elite team. Even with a tremendous athlete at quarterback, the Vols allowed a combined 11 sacks in losses to Alabama, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
The Gamecocks and Commodores, by the way, were 12th and 14th in sacks among SEC teams.
Yeah, there were issues aplenty on defense too. But while Dobbs and the offense put up big numbers, they rarely played a complete game under DeBord, whether the trend was starting slow (2016) or fading in the second half (2015). And that left the defense gassed on the field far too often.
The Vols played 1,000 defensive snaps across their 13 games this season, the fifth-most among Power 5 schools.
The Jones-DeBord reunion, while in some ways successful, was also imperfect.
Finding right fit key for Tennessee
With his play-caller and his quarterback leaving, Jones must reevaluate Tennessee’s offensive identity. He has the perfect chance to do so.
What type of play-caller should Jones target? A quarterbacks guru, such as former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, would sure be nice for the Vols. They have three young passers Quinten Dormady, Sheriron Jones and Jarrett Guarantano on the roster; developing them must be priorities A, B and C for 2017.
While DeBord was offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, graduate assistant Nick Sheridan handled most of the quarterback coaching duties. Adding a QB-specific assistant was something Jones and his staff considered last offseason, and it must be on the table again.
Look at the other SEC programs that hired QB specialists as coordinator: Matt Canada at LSU, Steve Sarkisian at Alabama and even Jim Chaney at Georgia. Jones must pay proper attention to that position.
The other key factor here, as pointed out by SEC Country colleague Jesse Simonton, is longevity. If Helfrich is on the table, Tennessee must make sure he doesn’t one-and-done it the way Will Muschamp did to Auburn. Make longevity a priority; consider a buyout clause of major importance. How both parties navigate this without a full-time athletic director will be interesting.
#Vols OC search will be very interesting with no AD, especially for a guy like Helfrich who still has HC aspirations. Contract language key.
— Jesse Re Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) January 3, 2017
Regardless of who Jones selects, this coordinator will be the single-most important hire he makes at Tennessee, his Year 1 staff notwithstanding. The Nebraska win was fine and dandy, but fans won’t easily forget that stinker of a loss to Vandy.
Nail this search and the Vols might be able to compensate for all the talent they lose (which now includes receiver Josh Malone). Whiff here and program insiders will continue questioning all the brick-building and Life-title-winning rah-rah talk.
Tangible offensive improvement will be difficult to come by in 2017, but Tennessee needs it.