Staff overhaul gives Tennessee new look heading into spring
By STEVE MEGARGEE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee has a new look as it gets ready to chase its first Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title in a decade.
Volunteers coach Butch Jones overhauled his coaching staff after a 9-4 season that included a Music City Bowl victory over Nebraska. Tennessee also enters spring practice Tuesday needing to find a new starting quarterback and attempting to replace several notable players lost to graduation or the NFL draft.
"As we all know, it hasn't been a typical offseason," Jones said. "A lot of new faces, which I think really have lent itself in turn to a lot of new energy, a lot of new excitement and some fresh perspectives from the five new coaches."
Newcomers include wide receivers coach Kevin Beard, quarterbacks coach Mike Canales, defensive line coach Brady Hoke , defensive backs coach/special teams coordinator Charlton Warren and strength coach Rock Gullickson . The number increases to six if you add offensive line coach Walt Wells, who got a promotion after being offensive quality control assistant for Tennessee last year.
Some former assistants left of their own accord.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord left for the same position at Indiana , a move bringing him closer to his family. Zach Azzanni went from coaching receivers at Tennessee to coaching wideouts in the NFL with the Chicago Bears .
Other changes were initiated by Jones.
Jones opted against bringing back offensive line coach Don Mahoney and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez, who were on Tennessee's staff the last four seasons. Jones also promoted Larry Scott from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator after DeBord's departure.
The staff changes shake up a program that failed to win the SEC East last year despite being picked as the preseason favorite. Tennessee followed up a 5-0 start by splitting its final eight games. The Vols haven't won a division crown since 2007 and haven't captured an SEC title since their 1998 national championship.
"As a leader it's always difficult to make changes," Jones said. "You're in constant evaluation of your program, what you need. Each team is different. Each year is different. I've been excited about this staff. The chemistry has been there almost instantaneously."
Jones specifically credited Gullickson for making a "monumental difference" that could produce an immediate impact. Jones said "you're going to see a much stronger, much bigger, much more explosive football team" when spring practice opens Tuesday.
This revamped staff has a big job ahead of it.
Tennessee must decide on a quarterback to replace Joshua Dobbs, who started 35 games over the last four seasons.
Quinten Dormady backed up Dobbs each of the last two seasons but must compete for the starting job with Jarrett Guarantano and Sheriron Jones. Jones said he has no timetable in place regarding when he will choose a starter.
Tennessee lost plenty of other familiar faces from the last few seasons.
Defensive end Derek Barnett, running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Josh Malone bypassed their senior seasons to enter the draft . Barnett is Tennessee's career sack leader and is considered a potential first-round draft pick along with Kamara. Malone had 50 catches for 972 yards and 11 touchdowns last season to lead Tennessee in all three categories.
Tennessee's defense must replace four-year starting cornerback Cam Sutton.
Their absences will create plenty of competition the next few months. Jones noted that this new staff represents a new chance for players to make an impression and bid for expanded roles.
"These players can walk in and it doesn't matter what you've done in the past - good, bad or indifferent," Jones said. "You have that opportunity to reinvent yourself."
NOTES: Jones said defensive backs Micah Abernathy and Rashaan Gaulden, wide receivers Brandon Johnson and Josh Smith, offensive lineman Brett Kendrick and defensive linemen Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle and Kendal Vickers will miss spring practice as they recover from injuries. ... Jonathan Kongbo will concentrate on playing defensive end this spring after getting some playing time at defensive tackle late last season.
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Updated March 20, 2017