When rumors were swirling around Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly leaving for the NFL, you know Butch Jones started scouting real estate in South Bend. Davis had been the beneficiary of the quixotic Kelly's moves for nearly a decade. When Kelly left Central Michigan after the 2006 season to become head coach at Cincinnati, Butch Jones was named head coach in his place. When Kelly left Cincinnati for Notre Dame in 2009, Jones moved into his former position with the Bearcats.
Jones departed from his well-traveled road this winter, opting instead for a trip to Tennessee to replace former coach Derek Dooley. For the first time in his career as a head coach, Jones inherits a team that is not a defending conference champion. For the first time, Jones takes over a team that wasn't running Kelly's offense. For the first time, Jones is tasked with a complete rebuild at a program that has won 12 conference games, and cycled through three coaches, in five years.
Tennessee's last coach, Derek Dooley, ran a pass-heavy offense based on spread shotgun formations, not unlike the Kelly offenses Jones has inherited in the past. Jones has kept Kelly's spread formations in the past, but has shown versatility in their implementation. At Central Michigan, with the Tim Tebow-like Dan LeFevour at his disposal, he implemented zone read tactics he picked up as Rich Rodriguez's wide receiver coach at West Virginia. LeFevour became just the second player to ever throw for 3000 yards and run for 1000 yards in the same season. At Cincinnati, Jones focused on a more conventional running game and focused on pocket passers under center. The Bearcats had a 1000-yard rusher in all three seasons that Jones was at the helm, and while passing numbers weren't as stellar as they had been under Kelly, Jones was able to make Zach Collaros and Munchie Legaux into somewhat competent quarterbacks.
The only two constants of Jones' offenses at Central Michigan and Cincinnati have been the coordinator (Mike Bajakian, who again traveled with Jones to Knoxville) and the tempo: No huddle, little delay, constant pressure on the defense. The question facing Jones -- and Gus Malzahn at Auburn, and Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss, and Mark Stoops at Kentucky -- is whether they can turn up the pace enough to counter the slogging pace of the SEC. The Southeastern Conference is already the nation's slowest, as measured by snaps per game. Many of the conference's best programs -- Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina -- are also among the nation's slowest. While the SEC's old unwritten rule to slow no-huddle offenses and allow for defensive substitutions may be gone, it remains to be seen whether a hurry-up offense can generate enough snaps to be effective against the methodical teams at the top.
It's defense where Dooley struggled so mightily, and where Jones can make an immediate impact. Dooley and his defensive coordinator, Sal Sunseri, tried to squeeze 4-3 personnel into a 3-4 alignment. The Vols adjusted poorly, allowing 471 yards per game, good for 107th nationally and last in the defense-happy SEC. The scoring defense -- 35.7 points per game allowed, 104th nationally -- was no better. As successful as Dooley's offense was, the defense was his undoing.
Jones has already promised a return to the 4-3. His coordinator, John Jancek, spent five years as a linebackers coach and, eventually, co-coordinator at Georgia before joining Jones in Cincinnati. While his one season as co-coordinator did not end particularly well -- Georgia gave up nearly 26 points per game and 31.5 in the SEC en route to an 8-5 (4-4) record and pink slips for both coordinators -- it provides institutional knowledge of the league that Jones does not independently possess. Throw in his former co-coordinator, Willie Martinez, at safeties coach, and Tennessee's defense will have plenty of experience with the offenses it faces.
Jancek experimented with multiple fronts at Cincinnati, but there's no doubt that the 4-3 will be Tennessee's base formation again in 2013. The personnel was largely recruited to the 4-3, and should have less trouble transitioning back to the Vols' former defense than they did in going to the 3-4 last year. The qeustion, then, is whether it will be a good 4-3. The Vols return six seniors in the defensive line two-deep, and two starting juniors and six other potential starters at linebacker. They weren't great last year, but Vols fans are betting on a return to form in the new system.
Jones' enthusiasm has endeared him to Vols fans, but his ability to rebuild -- not just maintain -- will decide just how long he stays in Knoxville.