The 2017 season was supposed to be one of unknowns for Tennessee.
Josh Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, Josh Malone, Jalen Hurd, Derek Barnett, Cam Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin all were gone. That’s a lot of talent to replace, plus there were four new assistant coaches.
The question was, how would the returning talent, under a revised coaching staff, fare without leadership from those veteran players.
The Vols were picked third in the SEC East behind Georgia and Florida at SEC Media Days; that turned out to be too high. Coach Butch Jones’ fifth season at Tennessee has been full of drama, injuries, fan displeasure and defeats.
Here are 10 things that helped turn 2017 into a nightmare for Vols fans.
Mishandling of quarterbacks
This is not the first time Jones has mishandled quarterbacks during his Tennessee tenure, but this time it derailed his team for the entire season.
Jones talked of using a two-quarterback system throughout fall camp and into opening week against Georgia Tech. Quinten Dormady saw action in the first game against Georgia Tech while Jarrett Guarantano did not see the field. Jones said he thought “circumstances of the game” dictated that Dormady go the distance in a comeback win.
In Week 2 against FCS Indiana State, Jones continued to say that “we have two very, very quality quarterbacks” and “we’re gonna need to play both quarterbacks.” Both quarterbacks rotated in and out against Indiana State ahead of the Vols’ rivalry game at Florida. Against the Gators, Guarantano only saw the field for one play, which was nullified by a penalty. Dormady threw three interceptions in the last-play loss to the Gators.
The next week against UMass, Jones did not call on Guarantano until 2:46 remaining in the third quarter, after the Vols had played uninspired behind a struggling Dormady.
Jones waited and waited to turn to Guarantano again, this time with 1:04 remaining in the third quarter the next week against Georgia with the Vols trailing 31-0. The ongoing question was asked: Why was Dormady still playing when he could not lead the team and offense?
Dormady’s stranglehold on the starting job was questionable to say the least, affecting the direction of the season. Guarantano needed the reps to prepare for the end the season.
Loss in Swamp set tone
When the Vols traveled Sept. 16 to The Swamp, Jones and offensive coordinator Larry Scott should have used running back John Kelly, who looked unstoppable at the time, to his maximum. Kelly had only 19 carries. He also should have been used in the red zone when the Vols had opportunities to take control of the game. Instead, the Vols called for shotgun sets and Dormady turned the ball over at the most critical times of the game.
The Gators were given life and took advantage of Tennessee’s offensive inefficiency, scoring 20 fourth-quarter points and winning on a Feleipe Franks 63-yard touchdown pass to Tyrie Cleveland as the clock expired.
Vol players have not quit on their head coach or fans — that is apparent in the games at Kentucky and against Southern Miss. But after the last-play loss at Florida, Team 121 played uninspired the next two weeks against UMass and Georgia, with the latter game killing any hope of competing for the SEC East championship. Jones could have addressed his team in a different manner; a quarterback change to Guarantano sooner could have provided different results and improved team chemistry.
Calling out the media
Jones unleashed harsh comments when asked about injury specifics to defensive tackle Shy Tuttle ahead of the Georgia game. Jones called out the media and referred to the question as fake news. That caused a national media stir regarding why the fifth-year head coach confronted the issue as he did.
Here are Jones’ full comments:
“I think all of us as human beings have to self-check ourselves, and you may not like that answer, but I’m a father. I have three boys and I think we sometimes got to put ourselves in a role of a parent as well. And I understand y’all have jobs to do. My expectations as the head football coach, I’m the caretaker of Tennessee football. I’m here to develop and grow the football program, recruit the best possible student-athletes to represent the University of Tennessee and win football games and graduate our players. That’s my responsibility. I take that very seriously. But also, I love our kids and I’m going to protect our players and I’m going to protect our program. And sometimes the negativity is overwhelming.
“If everyone is Vols fans, how do we let our opponents use this in the recruiting process with fake news? And sometimes, again, we have to check ourselves. What are we here for? What’s our values and principles that guide our life every single day?
“And I appreciate everyone in this room. You guys have a job to do, and I’m respectful of that. I’m friends with a lot of you guys in the room and I appreciate it, but also there comes a certain time where enough is enough. So, thank you. You guys have a great day. I look forward to seeing you on Wednesday and Go Vols.”
Lack of authority
Wide receiver Jauan Jennings, who quickly became a Tennessee legend with iconic moments against Florida and Georgia last season, was sidelined with a wrist injury suffered in the opening game against Georgia Tech.
Jennings has not been seen on the sideline and Jones was asked about his absence.
“I think we all know Jauan,” Jones responded. “Jauan is an extremely competitive young man. It absolutely bothers him being on the sideline because he feels he can’t help the football team.
“And that’s his makeup. Again, he’s doing everything he needs to do. He’s doing a great job in class. He’s rehabbing. … That’s his decision. I don’t want him to be on the sideline, kind of make it worse in terms of it’s bothering him right now that he feels he can’t help this football team.”
Jones, by calling it Jennings’ decision to not be there as a part of the team, shows a lack of control and authority. He placed a player’s desire over the team, setting the culture of the team for the remainder of the season.
Not enough Chandler
True freshman Ty Chandler stepped up in a big way in his first career start at Kentucky. The start came after the Vols announced that John Kelly was cited for possession of marijuana during game week. Chandler ran strong, with 120 yards on 22 carries and two touchdowns. Guarantano totaled 15 carries. The Vols would have been better off letting Chandler have more touches, thus saving Guarantano from additional contact.
Injuries mounting, no leadership to turn to
A reoccurring theme from last season — injuries taking a toll — has been widespread again for Team 121. The difference this season has been that there is no voice to turn to. In 2016 individuals like Dobbs and Barnett led when young players were thrown into game action.
Silence from AD John Currie
As the losses mounted and fans, alumni, former players and boosters voiced their displeasure on social media, radio and television — and rumors spread on message boards — first-year athletics director John Currie was silent. That did not make matters better.
Trouble on the recruiting trail
Jones and his staff put together a top-10 recruiting class during the offseason. But as the losses began to accumulate, the 2018 class took a hit by losing three commitments during the season. Now local 5-star commit Cade Mays, who had been committed to UT for two years and is the son of a former Vols player, is taking visits to Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Alabama.
15 consecutive quarters without an offensive TD
From the second quarter of the UMass game on Sept. 23 to the second quarter against Kentucky on Oct. 28, the Volunteer offense went 15 consecutive quarters without a touchdown. That should have been a red flag signaling changes to the offense to prevent the season going the way it did.