It's no secret that Butch Jones and his Tennessee Volunteers must continue to press forward in 2017 and will have to do so with key pieces moving on. Replacing offensive coordinator Mike DeBord may be the biggest hire of Jones' coaching career.
When hiring a new head coach or coordinator, the topic of hiring from within is generally one that does not push the excitement button for the masses but many times it is exactly what the doctor ordered. In cases where the departing coach has been successful it always adds credibility to finding the replacement already on staff.
When Jones looks at the current state of his offense he will see a unit that just set a school record in points (473) and touchdowns (63). A unit that averaged 6.4 yards per play was a decade high and only the second time going north of 6 yards a play in that time frame. The 5,768 yards of total offense was the second highest in 120 years of Big Orange football.
Joshua Dobbs finished just 12 yards shy of Peyton Manning's 3,789 yards of total offense for the single-season school record.
"I really like the way we played football, especially late in the year," Jones said Tuesday night. "The stats speak for themselves. I liked our balance, the way we pushed the ball downfield, and the formations we used."
Many fans have reached a fever pitch in anticipation of Jones making a "sexy' hire. InsideTennessee has learned that Jones has reached out to Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich is another name that has generated a lot of buzz from Big Orange fans but just how serious they are as candidates is yet to be determined.
As successful as the Vols offense was under DeBord, it is clear that Jones will search for a new playcaller that can build off of prior successes. While coaches such as Kelly, Helfrich or any other seasoned offensive coordinator would win the press conference much more so than a hire from within, it would be a risk. Many times there is a transition period where the new coach has to feel out his roster and the staff with which he works. The opener verses Georgia Tech in Atlanta is not a game Jones can afford to lose and breaking in an outsider as the playcaller could be a costly decision if the Yellow jackets were to beat their fourth straight SEC East opponent.
If Jones decides to promote from within, who does he choose?
Most speculation is surrounding passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni and special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Larry Scott.
"It's all about the fit," Jones said. "We have a very good staff at Tennessee."
Jones made a point to emphasize that the gameplanning was a collective effort among the staff and not just DeBord this past season.
Azzanni has one year experience as an offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky. In his one year at WKU, the Hilltoppers struggled mightily early in the season, averaging just over 13 points a game en route to an 0-4 record. However, the offense improved as the Hilltoppers went 7-1 in their last eight games with the offense averaging 27.5 points in those games. Azzanni is more experienced with Jones as he has coached under him at Central Michigan and throughout Jones' tenure at Tennessee.
Scott has never been an offensive playcaller but does have the interim head coaching tag at Miami on his résumé. Scott went 4-2 leading the Hurricanes before joining the Jones staff in Knoxville. Scott was influential in the success of the Tennessee offense this season, especially in implementing the two tight end sets that were successful down the stretch.
If Jones decides to go with a proven offensive coordinator with this hire, the risk is how will it all mesh. If he decides to promote Azzanni, Scott or even name them Co-offensive coordinators, the risk lies in just how ready they are for the job. Neither choice is guaranteed to bring the Vols success, but when looking at the numbers Team 120 put up, continuity needs to be a focus.
Make no mistake, a lot is riding on the success of this hire for Jones and the Volunteers.