Jalen Hurd's departure raises questions about Butch Jones, state of program
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — What a difference a season makes.
In Team 120’s case, it only took eight games for the world to come crashing down.
Monday’s announcement that Jalen Hurd is leaving is the latest example of a Murphy’s Law season gone terribly, indescribably wrong.
Hurd signed in the highly-touted “legacy class” of 2014 – a class projected to be the foundation of Butch Jones’ championship vision.
Make no bones about it, in the four years before Jones’ arrival, dysfunction rained down off Rocky Top.
Now, on Halloween 2016, Jones sat down and addressed the 12th player (Hurd) from the 2014 signing class to leave the program. Jones said he supported Hurd’s decision and thanked him for his effort. But he also made it crystal clear that the Vols were bigger than any one player.
“It’s all about our football program and team moving forward from this point,” Jones said.
Hurd departs with 2,638 career rushing yards. He’s sixth all-time and only 440 yards behind Travis Henry as Tennessee’s leading rusher.
What sparked Hurd’s decision to leave during the season and being so close to the rushing record? Has this been a brewing issue over time?
“I think it’s a combination of a long football season,” Jones said. “I don’t want to speak for Jalen. There are a lot of things that, you know, go into that decision and I guess the only thing I’ll say is that I value our relationship, I have a lot of respect for that young man and wish him nothing but the best.”
Does Vol Nation still believe in Jones?
For now, there are many unanswered questions surrounding not only Hurd’s departure, but also five-star wide receiver Preston Williams’ before the Alabama game.
Players leaving the program, on top of offensive scheme questions and an abundance of injuries the past two seasons have raised questions about where the program is headed under Jones.
There’s no question that Jones has restored Tennessee football, but the volume is growing louder about the simplistic offense, rash of transfers and the state of the strength of conditioning program. Jones can ignore the noise, but he can’t escape it.
Ending the 11-year losing streak to Florida was huge. But a 49-10 loss to rival Alabama and a loss to South Carolina has a feel to it as it did when Derek Dooley lost to Florida in 2012.
Dooley lost the fan base following that Florida loss; that was the beginning of the end as he did not finish the season.
The questions are fair as Jones is at the crossroads of where his program stands. Injuries and the state of the strength and conditioning program are a concern. Questioning whether Jones’ program has the right identity offensively is another issue that surrounds the final stretch of the 2016 season.
Aside from beating the Gators, few things have gone as hoped in 2016. But are most Vols fans ready to jump off the Jones bandwagon?
It doesn’t seem like it just yet, but the fourth-year head coach has to adjust his offensive scheme and also examine the direction of his strength and conditioning program to limit the abundance amount of injuries.
Looking ahead to 2017, beyond
Tennessee, technically, is still very much alive in the race to Atlanta, but one more loss will quickly shift attention to 2017.
Next year’s biggest issue starts with who will replace Joshua Dobbs at quarterback.
Is Quinten Dormady prepared to run Jones’ system that SEC defenses seemed to have figured out? Will Dormady (below) run the offense similar to what Justin Worley did in Jones’ first two seasons.
The other option is freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. Will the more athletic Guarantano start the 2017 opener against Georgia Tech?
Based on Jones’ track record, he tends to start upperclassmen. Worley started from day one, then Nathan Peterman received the call at Florida in 2013 and against Alabama in 2014 over Dobbs.
That’s where the uncertainty begins for 2017. If Jones decides to continue his running-spread scheme, the Dormady vs. Guarantano decision is big and ultimately could decide Jones’ fate.
One frustrating byproduct of the Vols’ season-long slow starts is the impact it’s had on Dormady’s preparation. In essence, there hasn’t been any.
He’s thrown just four passes this season because Dobbs has still be in there, trying to win games late in the fourth quarter.
The last four regular season games will be interesting to see if the Vols can finally put a complete game together, build a comfortable lead early and provide Dormady some experience for next year, especially if Jones elects to stay in the same offensive identity and play the upperclassman next year.
Slow starts to every game this season, on top of not finishing games against Florida in 2014 and several last season also make fans wonder whether Jones prepares the Vols not to lose rather than to win. It’s a fair assessment.
“We live in a week-to-week season, and there are natural adversities that a long season brings about,” Jones said. “You have to manage those adversities. Half of this industry loses each week. You have to keep things in perspective. The thing you can’t do is be overwhelmed by the emotion of a loss like that.”
The killer instinct is missing when topics of “half of the industry loses each week” is brought up. It’s now time to put aside “charting week-to-week what we blow up in the media” that Jones keeps in a journal.
Many former players and fans have invested in Jones’ tenure following the mistakes of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley — most notably Peyton Manning — but others are ready to see what unfolds with the state of the program following the loss to South Carolina.
Jones deserves the right to right the ship — again — but he also has to do it quick.
This was supposed to be the season. It’s quickly turning into another season to forget.