Tennessee football: The Vols' offensive identity is ... what exactly?
In late 2008, Lane Kiffin was hired to replace Phillip Fulmer as Tennessee’s head coach. Part of the reason he was picked by athletic director Mike Hamilton was his promise of bringing an all-star coaching staff to Knoxville.
Lane’s dad Monte, the well-respected defensive coordinator, was brought in for the same role at Tennessee. There were also Ed Orgeron, Eddie Gran, Lance Thompson, Willie Mack Garza … and Jim Chaney, then working with the St. Louis Rams, as offensive coordinator.
Chaney’s role would not be that of a typical offensive coordinator. Lane Kiffin would be the one calling plays. The overwhelming majority of offensive coordinators call their own plays, but Chaney said he was fine with the arrangement.
Chaney has had a long and successful career. He coached Drew Brees at Purdue, nearly won a national title as the OC at Georgia and today is in his second stint holding that job at Tennessee.
But it’s not working. It’s just not working.
Against Arkansas on Saturday, Tennessee’s offensive struggles were on display. The Vols’ 13-0 advantage at intermission quickly turned into a 14-13 deficit on the way to a 24-13 loss. Jarrett Guarantano, who wasn’t asked to do very much in the first half, left early in the second due to a head injury. His replacement was Brian Maurer, who threw 4 passes. All were incomplete.
True freshman Harrison Bailey finally got some playing time, completing 6 of 9 passes for 65 yards and an interception in the 4th quarter. Each completion happened while the Arkansas defense was allowing everything to be open in the middle of the field so the clock could keep running. In all, the Vols threw for only 107 yards the entire night. In the first 58 minutes? They accounted for only 42 passing yards.
As good as the Vols’ running game can be (Eric Gray rushed for 123 yards and the Vols’ lone touchdown against Arkansas), unless they turn into 1980s Nebraska, they aren’t winning anything by throwing for 107 yards.
Chaney and quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke have had 2 years to develop someone — anyone — to take control of the offense. Guarantano’s “resurgence” in the 2nd half of the 2019 season now looks like a mirage, assisted by a weak schedule and a solid defense. Backups J.T. Shrout and Maurer haven’t shown any signs that they are SEC-caliber signal callers. We haven’t seen enough to know what Bailey can or cannot accomplish.
But we do know Chaney is making $1.6 million. And Tennessee is not getting their money’s worth.
Which leads me back to 2009, when Chaney was fine with Lane Kiffin calling the plays. Hey, maybe I’m reading too much into this. And it has been 11 long years since Lane was patrolling the Neyland Stadium sideline. But current Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt is a defensive coach. Offense is not his specialty. He needs a confident coach to run things on that side of the football. Chaney hasn’t shown that he’s capable of being that guy.
Pruitt’s decisions to pass up field-goal opportunities while down 2 scores not once but twice in the final minutes against Arkansas was coaching malpractice of the highest order. It brought back memories of the inept Butch Jones in-game coaching choices that cost the Vols some big wins in 2015 and 2016. That’s not good company for Pruitt to be in these days.
The Vols have lost 4 straight games and will be favored in only 1 of their last 4. A 3-7 final mark is not only a possibility, but a probability. Pruitt likely will survive this, his 3rd season in Knoxville, if for no other reason than paying millions of dollars in buyout money during a pandemic would be a PR nightmare.
But changes will have to be made to his coaching staff. And unless the Vols offense can show significant improvement over the next few weeks, preferably with Bailey at the helm, it will be difficult to make a convincing argument to retain Chaney and Weinke.