Knoxville scale: Give Butch Jones credit for recruiting or blame his coaching?
The final drive of the game didn’t go as planned.
That seems to be the theme of Tennessee’s season thus far.
On Tennessee’s final drive in its double-overtime loss to Oklahoma, QB Joshua Dobbs threw an interception.
On Tennessee’s final drive in its loss to Florida, the Volunteers only ran four offensive plays in 1:23, wasted two timeouts as a result of penalties and missed a potential game-winning, 55-yard field goal.
On Tennessee’s final drive in its loss to Arkansas, the offense had five minutes to work its way down the field and score the game-winning touchdown but turned it over on downs after only gaining 29 yards.
On Tennessee’s final drive in its loss to Alabama, Dobbs was sacked twice and lost a fumble.
It’s been a tough season for Tennessee’s coaches, players and fans, but it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Tennessee has played well in most of its games this season, and the players’ effort shouldn’t be questioned.
But that truth along with Tennessee’s 3-4 record brings up another question: Should head coach Butch Jones receive praise for compiling talent or should he be condemned for his poor in-game coaching decisions?
There is one word that sums up the answer to this question: perspective. Tennessee’s fan base needs to understand how much the program has progressed during Jones’s three years as head coach.
When Jones arrived in 2013, the football program was depleted of talent. Derek Dooley left some talented players (Curt Maggitt, A.J. Johnson, Brian Randolph, Pig Howard and LaDarrell McNeil), but there was no depth. Jones started to change that with his first recruiting class.
Jones’s first class wasn’t the most impressive recruiting class that Tennessee has ever had — ranking No. 21 in the nation — but it laid the foundation. Jones brought in two linemen — Dylan Weisman and Brett Kendrick — who have started every game in 2015. But most importantly, he recruited the heart and soul of this current Tennessee team, Joshua Dobbs.
Jones couldn’t have found a better face for his program. It was evident last season that the players fed off Dobbs’ positive attitude. In last year’s game against Alabama, Tennessee was down 20-0 in the first quarter when Jones burned Dobbs’s redshirt and put him in the game.
After Tennessee gave up another touchdown, Dobbs’ aggressiveness ignited a fire within his teammates, and the Vols scored 17 unanswered points. Tennessee went on to lose the game 34-20, but the score could have been so much worse if Dobbs hadn’t inspired his team. It was the first time since 2009 that Tennessee had competed with Alabama, and it was a sign of things to come.
One week later, with Tennessee down by 14 points on the road against South Carolina, Dobbs led Tennessee on a furious comeback, accounting for two touchdowns in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Tennessee went on to win that game in overtime and won three of its final four games, including its first bowl game victory since 2008.
With the momentum from last year’s end-of-season success, many pundits thought Tennessee would take a major step forward in 2015. And the program has taken a step forward. It’s not as big of a step as Tennessee’s fan base would have preferred, but the team is heading in the right direction.
Here’s one way to think about Tennessee’s progress:
In 2014, Tennessee lost to Oklahoma team by 24 points. This season, the Volunteers lost in double overtime to an Oklahoma team that might earn a spot in the college football playoff.
Last year, Tennessee lost to Georgia by three points. This year, the Vols beat Georgia by seven points.
Last season, Tennessee wasn’t close against Alabama. This past Saturday, the Vols gained a 1-point lead with five minutes remaining in fourth quarter before losing 19-14
Still, 3-4 is frustrating and in-game coaching has been a problem.
It was infuriating when Butch Jones opted to kick an extra point instead of going for two and giving his team the opportunity secure a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter against Florida.
It was confounding when earlier in that same game, Jones called two timeouts on fourth downs when Florida was set to kick, only to watch the Gators offense come back on the field and convert said fourth downs. It was devastating to witness Tennessee mismanage the clock on the final drive of that same game.
And Tennessee’s tendency to call conservative plays while holding a lead is frustrating.
Nevertheless, Tennessee’s fan base needs to have perspective. It needs to bear in mind that most of Tennessee’s current starters are freshmen and sophomores who are still developing. It has to comprehend that Tennessee’s last two recruiting classes were ranked fifth in the nation, according to Rivals.com, making the future bright. And most importantly, It has to remember what it was like to watch Tennessee play during Jones’s first season as head coach, when the Vols lost to Alabama by 35 points.
Jones deserves praise for bringing Tennessee’s football program out of the desert. And now it’s time for him to win.