Tennessee Coordinator Candidates
Less than forty-eight hours after ending their 2018 regular season with a whimper and a thud by getting drubbed by Vanderbilt 38-13, the Vols are making some changes to the coaching staff, but not quite in the way that most anticipated. After securing another losing season and ending any post season hopes with the loss at Vanderbilt, Tennessee seemed to be full speed ahead into the off season. This sprint started with early reports that first year Offensive Coordinator Tyson Helton had been fired by Jeremy Pruitt after the game. This report came from a few sources shortly after the game, however they were refuted by Pruitt during his post-game press conference after the loss in Nashville. The initial reports seemed to have some legs as there have been rumors of some friction between Pruitt and Helton over the Vols’ struggling offense. Further credence was lent to this line of thinking when Pruitt publicly questioned the offensive play calling in press conferences after a few games this season. So, Vol fans were told Helton was gone, then that he was staying, by the head coach no less. And now he is gone again. Reports are that Helton has accepted an offer to become the next head coach for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, where he served as an offensive coordinator and quarterback coach under now Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm.
This resolution is likely the best possible one for all parties involved in Knoxville. Helton has gotten his first opportunity to be an FBS Head Coach, to further his career, to run a program how he wants to, and is going to be able to do it at a place he is familiar with and has been very successful at in the past. For Pruitt, if there truly were internal issues between he and Helton, be they schematic or personal, they have been resolved now with Pruitt being able to applaud his assistant for furthering his career. This should publicly ensure that there is little to no lingering bad blood, and more importantly, it allows Pruitt a second chance at choosing someone to design and call the kind of offense he wants to institute at Tennessee. As far as the University is concerned, this allows Pruitt to make a change to his staff that seemed to be heading towards some internal problems at least. It also allows him to make it without putting Tennessee on the hook for what would have been an expensive buyout for Helton. All parties involved should feel pleased with how this has been concluded, but now the Vols have an opening for an offensive coordinator. Where do Tennessee and Pruitt look to fill that void now?
There are several names swirling around right now as various options to fill the vacant Coordinator position with the Vols. Some are being mentioned more than others, but, in no particular order, here are the options that seem the most logical for Tennessee to hire as Helton’s replacement.
Freeze is widely considered the early front runner to land the Tennessee Offensive Coordinator position. Freeze is a complicated candidate with a resume’ that makes a compelling case for hiring him, and a history that can make an equally compelling case for avoiding him. Freeze is not currently in a coaching role, but he was most recently the head coach for the Ole Miss Rebels from 2012-2016 and was the head coach of the Arkansas State Red Wolves in the 2011 season. On the field, Freeze makes perfect sense for Tennessee. He has beaten Nick Saban coached Alabama teams multiple times as an opposing head coach, he has an impressive record as a head coach, and has worked to turn around programs in difficult situations with success. He has done all of this on the strength of some very high-powered offenses. Freeze has significant SEC experience and has significant success in the conference. He is regarded as an exceptional recruiter, and has strong ties to the Memphis area, an area that Pruitt has made a priority in recruiting since arriving in Knoxville. All those things considered, Freeze seems like an obvious hire for the Vols. Unfortunately for Freeze, the reason he is not currently coaching, and that Tennessee will have to strongly consider hiring him comes from some very serious off field issues.
Freeze was the head coach at Ole Miss when they were hit with multiple serious NCAA violations, including Freeze being charged with not monitoring his assistants, assistants that former Rebel star offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil admitted paid him money while he was a student. When things couldn’t get much worse for Freeze, a further scandal broke out of Oxford that he had been making calls to escorts on phones paid for by the university while he was on recruiting visits. This combination saw Freeze fired at Ole Miss, the Rebels take NCAA penalties, self-impose a bowl ban, and cut scholarships. Freeze also has a track record of recruiting some players into his program that have had serious off field issues, the aforementioned Tunsil and his teammate, quarterback Chad Kelly, top that list. The issue of assistants paying Tunsil also throws doubt onto just how good a recruiter Freeze is, with many across the nation questioning the class that he brought in to Oxford in 2013 under circumstances that now appear highly questionable. Another complication to bringing Freeze to Knoxville is just what hoops he would have to jump through to be admitted back into the conference as a coach by the SEC and their offices. There is more than enough history with Freeze for the conference to insist on penalizing any team that were to choose to hire him. Considering the damage a bowl ban or lost scholarships could do to recruiting, and how paramount this recruiting class is to Pruitt, those penalties could be more than enough to stop a Freeze hire to Knoxville. Freeze is a gamble for the Vols, one that could pay off with all his proven success, but also one that could hurt it if he slipped into his old ways.
Friend is the current Offensive Line Coach for Tennessee, and former roommate of Jeremy Pruitt when both were playing at Alabama. Friend was an Offensive Line Coach and Offensive Coordinator for Mike Bobo at Colorado State in the 2016 season, where he was the highest Group of Five assistant coach in the country. Before stints with the Rams and Vols, Friend was a long-time offensive line coach at Georgia with Bobo and Mark Richt. Friend has had success in the SEC as position coach and was widely heralded as one of the best hires that Pruitt made onto his initial staff in Knoxville. Friend and Pruitt are close and have been for many years, and that friendship and trust could make Friend an attractive option for Pruitt to put in charge of his offense. On the other side of the coin, while it is not fair to hold Will Friend wholly accountable for what happened with the offensive line this year, it is also hard to justify promoting a coach that led a group that was that bad. While Friend has been an Offensive Coordinator before, he has only done so for a single season. Pruitt’s trust in Friend and him being a current member of the staff lend some real credence to the buzz that he could be promoted to the Coordinator role. The play of his unit this season, his inexperience calling plays, his personal friendship with Pruitt, and some of the other coaches available mean that his promotion may be a tough sell to the fans.
Currently the Wide Receivers Coach at the University of Michigan, Vol fans are well acquainted with McElwain from his time as the Head Coach at the University of Florida from 2015-2017 and as the Offensive Coordinator at the University of Alabama from 2008-2011. McElwain was also the Head Coach at Colorado State from 2012-2014. McElwain has both the SEC success and experience, as well as the personal relationship, that Pruitt seems to prize. The two worked together at Alabama and coached against one another at multiple stops. McElwain also managed to lead the Gators to back-to-back SEC East crowns as their head coach. During his tenures with Alabama and Florida, McElwain enjoyed success in the SEC and sent many players into the NFL. However, McElwain struggled at times to recruit at the level expected of him with Florida, and his offense never seemed to truly take off there. Offensive woes and bizarre comments about a death threat saw McElwain fired from Florida with cause. After his struggles to get the Gator offense corrected, there is reason to see why Vol fans would be skeptical of his ability to get the Tennessee offense rolling up points. Perhaps that was because he was the head coach, and not coordinator like he was at Alabama? Perhaps he had success at Alabama because of the types of recruits the Tide regularly brought in? Will McElwain be a resource to the Vols on the recruiting trail, or a liability? There are plenty of questions surrounding McElwain, but Pruitt seems to trust him, as his name is emerging as one of the candidates on the short list for the job. All of this overlooks the fact that the Alabama-Florida combination is going to be especially difficult for Vol fans to stomach.
Lindsey is currently the Offensive Coordinator for the Auburn Tigers, a position he has held since the 2017 season. Before that, Lindsey spent one season as the Offensive Coordinator for Arizona State in 2016, and he served as the Offensive Coordinator at Southern Miss from 2014-2015. Lindsey has been tied with Gus Malzahn before he was hired at Auburn. Malzahn has raved about Lindsey and was instrumental in him being hired by the Golden Eagles in 2014. Lindsey has worked calling his own plays for some time, has Power Five experience, has SEC experience, and has some ties to Pruitt from when they were both coaching in the high school ranks. Lindsey was recently regarded as a rising star in the coaching world, but his landing at Auburn, despite the closeness to Malzahn, was rather odd. Malzahn calls his own plays, which leaves many wondering just what Lindsey’s role with the Tigers is, as well as how much of the regression they have seen this year is his fault? Fans on the Plains are calling for Malzahn and Lindsey’s heads right now, and with both in clear danger of being fired, it seems an odd choice for a hire to Tennessee. Still, if Pruitt feels that the struggles were less related to Lindsey and likes what he saw from him in his previous stops as a play caller, this choice could make sense.
Vol fans are well acquainted with the Morristown native and Tennessee alumnus. Sanders was a part of the Tennessee program from 1989-2005 as a player, position coach, and Offensive Coordinator from the 1998 National Championship game until 2005. Sanders served as the Quarterback Coach at Kentucky from 2006-2008 and was the Offensive Coordinator for the Wildcats from 2009-2012 before moving on to be the Offensive Coordinator at Florida State from 2013-2017. It was during his time with the Seminoles that Sanders won his second National Championship as a coordinator, and it was where he first worked with and formed a relationship with Jeremy Pruitt. Sanders is currently the Head Coach of the East Tennessee State Buccaneers, where he led ETSU to the program’s first appearance in the FCS Playoffs in over two decades and won a share of the SoCon Championship. Sanders is a Tennessee guy, has had success in the SEC and at the highest levels of college football, and is familiar with Pruitt. It would take some spending by the Vols to pry Sanders out of Johnson City, but Sanders has grown significantly as a coach from the one that was fired in 2005. It would also be wise not to underestimate the connection that AD Phillip Fulmer and his former Coordinator have in addition to the connections to Pruitt.
Propst is a name that has emerged that will seem a surprise to Vol fans, if a little familiar. Father of former Vol linebacker John Propst, the elder Propst is the Head Coach at Colquitt County High School in Georgia, a job he has held since 2008. Prior to that, Propst was the Head Coach at Hoover High School in Alabama from 1999-2007. Propst worked with a young Pruitt first at Hoover, and the two have remained close since. Rush Propst is widely recognized as one of the best high school coaches in America and has been for nearly two decades now. Pruitt clearly respects Propst and values the skills of coaches that come from the high school ranks. For all his success in Alabama and Georgia, Propst has never been a major college position coach, let alone Coordinator. Propst is a gamble for Pruitt and the Vols, but one that could boom or bust. It feels like Propst, like Friend, should perhaps become an option only after some more established college coaches turn down an opportunity with the Vols, however, it appears both are on the initial short list.
Spavital is currently the Offensive Coordinator for the West Virginia Mountaineers, a position he has held since the 2017 season. Prior to that, Spavital spent the 2016 season as the Offensive Coordinator at Cal, and 2013-2015 in College Station as the Offensive Coordinator for Texas A&M. Spavital has been well traveled, but his offenses have rarely been the problems at the schools he coached at. Often serving dual roles as Offensive Coordinator and Quarterback Coach, Spavital has notably coached Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M and currently coaches Will Grier at West Virginia. Pruitt has seemed to want to run a more traditional, power run based offense from the recruits he has targeted and what he has told the media. Spavital runs a wide-open, spread, throw it all over the field kind of offense. The match doesn’t seem to be there. Still, Spavital’s results can’t be questioned, and the Vols and Pruitt know exactly how effective it can be after seeing it up close in the season opener. Spavital has the resume’ and results for this job, has been successful in the SEC, and knows about recruiting the south, particularly the Charlotte area, another priority target for Pruitt since getting to Knoxville. If Spavital could blend his style with that of Pruitt, the Vols could have something here, however, a failure of the two to mesh could result in a very similar situation to the one narrowly avoided with Helton.
The Vols Offensive Coordinator search is currently wide open. These names are the ones that are currently circulating and seem to make the most sense. Other names like Matt Canada, Dan Enos, Kliff Kingsburry, Freddie Kitchens, and even Lane Kiffin, could be worth monitoring in this search, but they seem to be options further down Pruitt’s list for consideration. One thing is certain, the Vols need to get this hire right. Whoever this job falls to will have equal amounts of work and expectations in front of them to get the Vols back where they want to be. Pruitt is getting a second chance to select the man to shape his offense. Vol Nation is watching intently to see what Pruitt does with the opportunity and is hoping it gives their team some momentum going into recruiting. Something to feel hopeful about and to cheer for on Saturdays would be welcomed as well.