With the news coming on Wednesday morning that Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni would be leaving the program to take the same position with the NFL’s Chicago Bears, it left yet another coaching staff spot open for head coach Butch Jones to fill.
In fact, whoever Jones selects to lead the receiving corps will be the seventh new addition to the Vols’ staff this offseason.
With the look of the Tennessee sideline changing so drastically heading into the 2017 season, fans have to wonder what the overall impact of the new staff members will be. With Jones heading into a year in which many analysts and his own fans alike have him on the hot seat, the changes all have to wind up be upgrades.
How much of an upgrade are the hires, though?
Here are the grades for each new Tennessee staff member and the reasoning for them:
Larry Scott: offensive coordinator
In a move that was not completely surprising, but still leaves fans very unsure heading into next season is the promotion of tight ends/special teams coach Larry Scott to offensive coordinator.
When Mike DeBord announced that he would be resigning from the Vols staff after only two years as OC to take the same job with the Indiana Hoosiers of his native state, the rumor mill began to churn.
Would Jones hire former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich or would he stick with an in-house hire?
Jones chose the latter option in promoting Scott. It wasn’t a universe-breaking move, but it does give the UT offense a sense of continuity. Plus, Scott’s ties to the recruiting hotbed of South Florida after his time on the Miami staff—including six games as interim HC—are an added bonus.
The only issue is Scott’s experience as a coordinator. The last time he was in charge of play-calling was in 2004 when he was OC for Sebring High School in Florida. Nevertheless, Jones knows that his offense will be what he wants it to be and UT’s players definitely seem to gel well with Scott. We will just have to see how it translates on the field.
Brady Hoke: defensive line coach/associate head coach
Without a doubt, the biggest name that Jones added to his staff this offseason has been former Michigan head coach Brady Hoke.
After an unsuccessful one-year stint as the Oregon Ducks defensive coordinator, Hoke is moving down the staff ladder, but to a position he has the most experience in at defensive line.
Hoke is taking over a group that is losing several key play-makers such as Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis and is dealing with injuries to star DTs Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie.
This makes it even more critical that Hoke comes in and has immediate success.
That’s exactly what Vol fans should expect from Hoke, a man who has close to 15 total years of DL coaching under his belt at places like Michigan and Oregon State. Hoke should also be a big help in recruiting and rebuilding the defensive lines depth as well.
He may not have worked out well as a head coach at Michigan, but recruiting prowess is one thing he didn’t lack.
Mike Canales: quarterbacks coach
Tennessee needed a real QB coach this season, without question.
Josh Dobbs is gone and the era of either Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano will be ushered in this fall. The group of signal-callers needs guidance. Mike Canales being the one to give that guidance raises some eyebrows.
Sure, Canales has 30-plus years of coaching experience at various stops throughout college and the NFL. He even has interim head coaching experience at North Texas.
Where those stops have been, however, makes many question if he is SEC caliber.
The biggest name colleges Canales has been at are North Carolina State and Arizona (where he spent 2004-05 as offensive coordinator) but he only spent a combined four years at those schools.
The rest of his time outside of spending 2003 as the New York Jets WRs coach as been at mid-major programs like North Texas and South Florida (where Canales coached with Larry Scott). In fact, his previous stop was at Utah State as the running backs/tight ends coach.
That raises another red flag. Yes, Canales has multiple years of coaching quarterbacks, but it seems strange that wasn’t what he was doing at his last job. Canales is experienced, but is he ready for the job that awaits him in SEC football?
Overall, the success of this season will greatly depend on quarterback play and that puts a great load on the shoulders of Canales. If he fails then Jones most likely fails with him.
Walt Wells: offensive line coach
On the same day that Hoke was hired as defensive line coach, Jones announced that the other side of the trenches would be getting a new look as well. Jones, promoted Walt Wells from offensive assistant to offensive line coach.
Wells, like Hoke, has many years of experience coaching lineman. Eastern Kentucky, New Mexico State, Western Kentucky and South Florida are among the career stops for Wells.
This includes two years as USF’s offensive coordinator from 2013-14.
Since he served as an assistant last year, Wells has familiarity with the offense that should translate well as he takes over coaching the offensive line.
The play of the offensive line under former coach Don Mahoney was mediocre at times, but the mobility of Dobbs made up for it more often than not. With a new quarterback at the helm in 2017, consistent offensive line play will be a must.
Like Canales, this will be the highest level of football Wells has coached at thus far. However, with a year of experience with this offense, Wells should be confident stepping into this new role.
Charlton Warren: defensive backs coach
One area that was in desperate need of improvement this offseason was Tennessee’s secondary.
After years of falling short of expectations under Willie Martinez, Jones made a definite upgrade in hiring Charlton Warren from North Carolina to coach defensive backs. Warren brings one of the best track records with him to Knoxville.
After nearly a decade at the Air Force Academy, Warren spent a season at Nebraska before coaching two years at UNC.
At Chapel Hill, Warren helped do a 180 on the Tar Heels’ passing defense. In just two seasons, UNC’s secondary went from one of the worst units in the country to one of the best. In 2016, UNC allowed only 11 passing touchdowns, good for fourth-best in the nation.
Tennessee’s defense was extremely disappointing in Bob Shoop’s first year as defensive coordinator and the awful play of the secondary (along with injuries) was a key factor in this. The talent is still there for the Vols DBs, they just need better guidance.
If Warren can do at UT what he accomplished at UNC, the Vols’ secondary can become one of the strongest units on the team soon.
Rock Gullickson: strength and conditioning director
Can you smell what The Rock is cookin’?
This honestly was probably the most important staff position filled this offseason.
UT had been without a full-time strength and conditioning director since Dave Lawson left last April. The result that followed was not pretty as improper strength and conditioning was most likely a culprit in the unprecedented string of injuries Tennessee suffered throughout the 2016 season.
It was clear the Tennessee needed someone over training the Vols’ bodies in a big way.
Enter “The Rock.”
He has been a strength coach for nearly 40 years and has been over big-time college and NFL strength programs like Texas, Louisville, the Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints and his last stop with the Los Angeles Rams.
There is simply nobody more qualified for the position and this was a phenomenal hire by Jones.