Play-calling is an art.
Some offensive coordinators have the innate talent to keep defenses on their toes, and others struggle within the framework of a game to sustain unpredictability.
For first-year Tennessee offensive coordinator Tyson Helton, it was a big, ol’ screaming dud of a season because of his inability to do so.
To be honest, though, it was a hire that seemed destined to fail from the beginning.
When Jeremy Pruitt was putting together his first staff at Tennessee, he made several hires that were met with universal delight. Then came the all-important offensive coordinator hire for a defensive-minded head coach, and after several exciting names were thrown around, word surfaced he hired USC assistant Tyson Helton.
For $1.2 million.
That’s a lot of cheddar for somebody who’d been around good play callers in the past but who’d never really consistently called an offense, even as Jeff Brohm’s offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky. Tennessee fans were unimpressed, and Helton was a popular scapegoat all year for the SEC’s worst offense.
In fairness to him, it’s impossible to be consistent when you have a historically horrible offensive line. In defense of the haters of the ‘What-the-Helton’ Offense, the man didn’t do himself any favors. There was zero rhythm in the play-calling, a discombobulated run-pass mixture and entire games — heck, entire months — where it seemed we couldn’t convert short-yardage plays or make enough noise on first and second downs to keep defenses honest.
Even the two best offensive performances of the year — against Auburn and South Carolina — were uneven and dissimilar. Were we the downfield-striking aggressors that beat the Tigers with a slew of 50-50 balls? Or, were we the horizontal passing team the Gamecocks failed to stop that allowed us to open up the middle of the field with the run?
It was frustrating to watch on a weekly basis.
Personnel had a lot to do with it, as did a starting quarterback with no internal clock and obvious limitations. But, just once, I’d love for us to look like an offense rather than power-run into the line of scrimmage two downs and then throw a 30-yard jumpball and hope something happens.
That’s not offense, and it killed us more often than it benefitted us.
Helton is to blame, Pruitt and his possible meddling is to blame, and the mediocre personnel and third-rate offensive line are to blame.
All that said, when you fail to get Ty Chandler the ball again after a 75-yard touchdown run to open the second half against Vanderbilt or you have a hoss like Jauan Jennings and struggle to get him balls, that goes on the shoulders of the OC.
At the very least, there have been enough reports about icy run-ins between Helton and Pruitt that you know there was smoke to the duo failing to see eye to eye. That’s never what you want with a young coach who doesn’t trust the side of the ball on which he isn’t an expert.
So when the news surfaced Monday that Helton was leaving Knoxville to take over for fired coach Mike Sanford Jr. at Western Kentucky, Vols fans almost universally rejoiced.
This is a do-over for Pruitt, and — unlike most coaches who’ve departed from UT recently — it won’t cost us any money or negative publicity.
Quarterback commitment Brian Maurer already publicly said he committed to UT and not the offensive coordinator, so he isn’t going anywhere. The Vols are in the mix for 2020 stud signal-caller Harrison Bailey of Marietta (Ga.) HS who is supposed to announce on Thursday between Michigan and Tennessee. Chances are, he already knows where he’s going, and it won’t impact that decision. Even if he chooses the Wolverines, there’s time for the new UT coordinator to get to know Bailey.
So, recruiting shouldn’t be hindered.
Now, the important question is where Pruitt will look next?
Some of the more popular names being thrown around today were former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, Alabama quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury (pipe dream), Georgia co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach James Coley, legendary high school coach Rush Propst, Hoover (Ala.) HS coach Josh Niblett, as well as Tennessee offensive line coach Will Friend, UT graduate assistant Joe Osovet and UT running backs coach Chris Weinke.
Other names could emerge, but obviously, a hire like Lindsey, Freeze, KK, Enos or Spavital would be a coup. Even Coley having SEC experience and play-calling acumen would be a nice hire. But a lot of the others come with major question marks attached, and they won’t sway popular opinion.
The bottom line, however, is this is a big opportunity for Pruitt to make a big move.
As a defensive-minded coach, he has to learn not only to trust what happens on offense but to let the man he hires do his job. Also, Pruitt is going to have to coach up his defensive coaches when it comes to play-calling, too. Head coaches usually don’t succeed for long playing coordinator at the same time. Yes, you like a hands-on coach who wants everything to go his way, but you also want him to be able to believe in the hires he makes to share that common-thread philosophy.
So, if Pruitt is comfortable with Lindsey who is a long-time buddy who has SEC coordinator experience with Auburn and wants to branch out from under the meddling of Gus Malzahn, that needs to be the move. If Pruitt talks to Enos or Spavital and gets on the same page with those guys, what philosophy they’d bring, that needs to be the guy.
I’m not averse to a Friend or Osovet promotion like most quick-triggered Vols fans. I would be disappointed, but I don’t necessarily believe it’s the death knell that it was when Butch Jones promoted Larry Scott to replace Mike DeBord. Yes, we’re jaded right now because of that situation, but we don’t know that Helton’s offense fails to work; we just know it failed in 2018 because of myriad reasons, not the least of which his ability to get into a comfortable groove with his in-game play mix.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest this could be the biggest decision of Pruitt’s Tennessee career.
Yes, he’s only one year in, and you have to believe athletic director Phillip Fulmer is going to give him a pretty long leash to build his program his way. But if Pruitt botches this hire, the questions creep in about whether he is just a really good defensive coordinator that is clueless when it comes to doing what it takes on both sides of the ball to build a championship-caliber program in the SEC.
Not making a bowl game in the first year is a honeymoon-ender for Pruitt, who gets a tiny pass thanks to the mess left by Jones. But while Pruitt doesn’t have to care how the fans feel about who he hires for OC, he’d better know whoever he chooses — from Niblett to Kliff Kingsbury — absolutely must perform.
It will help whoever gets the job that the Vols will have another year to retool its offensive line and get some more recruits in to help boost the offensive talent level. It will help to have another year of strength and conditioning in a stable program. But nothing can help that play-calling acumen; that’s something whoever Pruitt pinpoints must possess.
It was much of the reason Helton was never embraced in his only season on the Hill, and it’s the main reason why we universally are yelling after him not to let the door hit ya where the Good Lord split ya on his way out.
Opportunity abounds. Now Pruitt must seize it and hit a home run, something that will be judged on Saturdays next fall, not by the name of the hire.