The Tennessee Vols (5-2) are off to the program’s best start since 2006. But, how have the Butch Jones and the coaches performed this season?
We give our midseason grades as the Vols head into the bye week. The coaching staff is part one of our three part series this week. (Disclaimer: the Alabama game was bad for everyone and overall grades have been affected)
PART 2: Grades for the offense.
PART 3: Grades for the defense.
This is a very difficult grade to give. There have been a ton of variables to this season between the grocery list of injuries, exhilarating victories and the one blow out loss.
I gave Butch Jones the B+ because his team fixed its biggest problem from last year: not closing out games.
Tennessee held a fourth quarter lead in all four of its losses in 2015, but it could never slam the door shut on an opponent. Those failures were in all three phases of the game: offense, defense and special teams. This season, the Vols have won close games with help from all three of those phases. The defense came up big and made stops at key moments against Virginia Tech, Ohio and Florida. The Vols held two TD leads late in those games and were able to keep them.
Offensively, UT had humongous second halves against Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M, outscoring those opponents 90-35. Josh Dobbs, Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings have been able to develop a downfield passing threat that was non-existent a year ago. However, it still needs more consistency.
Special teams have continued to be very special for Tennessee. Evan Berry had a game saving kick return against Georgia that set up the game-winning hail-mary touchdown to Jennings. Trevor Daniel has been a huge factor in field position in the punting game. He showed up big in the Florida game, as the Gators were constantly pinned deep.
My main criticism of Jones has been his teams’ struggles to start a game fast. The second half comebacks have been entertaining, but we’ve seen how its taken a toll on this team physically and emotionally. The Vols can’t afford to lose another game and allowing a lesser opponent to get an early lead could bite in the season’s second half.
MIKE DEBORD – OFFENSIVE
If you follow me on Twitter, you know Mike DeBord is my least favorite offensive coordinator in the SEC. I’ll try to be fair when giving him and his offensive staff it’s midseason grade.
Fans say DeBord’s play calling is passive, boring, predictable. They say DeBord isn’t letting Dobbs run the ball, which is when he’s most successful. Is his play calling predictable? Will Warren, at the Orange & White Report, put out some great stats about Mike DeBord’s play calling during his time at UT. In 20 games as the Vols play caller, DeBord has run Jalen Hurd (or Kamara when Hurd was injured) up the middle on the first play of the game 16 times. So, 80-percent of the time DeBord runs the same play on the first snap of the game. Gross. Warren also discovered the Vols run the ball 69-percent of the time on first downs, and UT is 106 (of 128) in the country in yards per carry on first down.
I’ve said DeBord is the piece that is holding this Tennessee team back. He needs to be better or Butch Jones might have to find someone else, soon.
BOB SHOOP – DEFENSIVE
Shoop came over from Penn State in the offseason to become Tennessee’s new defensive coordinator. He said in the preseason that there are three guys his defense couldn’t afford to lose to injury: LBs Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cam Sutton. Oops.
Shoop gets the highest coaching grade because he’s had to deal with the most bad luck. All three of those players got hurt. Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) is out for the season, and Kirkland and Sutton both hope to return from ankle injuries before the season ends.
The linebackers have been hit with an unprecedented number of injuries. Both of Reeves-Maybin’s back ups have gone down and forced fourth stringer Elliot Berry into action. Colton Jumper has grown, significantly, as the team’s middle linebacker. Recently, Tennessee has lost two of its top four defensive tackles in Danny O’Brien (dismissed) and Khalil McKenzie (torn pectoral).
Shoop’s schemes have followed suit with the team’s beastly second half performances. He has been able to make adjustments and shut offenses down after halftime. Florida and Georgia had eleven combined second half drives without a first down. Shoop held A&M’s offense in check for most of the second half to allow for a 21 point comeback.
If Shoop’s defense didn’t wait until the second half to start making big time plays, he might have a perfect grade heading into the bye week.