After three consecutive losing seasons, Tennessee should be one of the most motivated teams in the country.
And the coaching staff should be just as motivated. Although it hasn’t lost 21 games in the last three seasons, it has something to prove, too.
When Butch Jones was introduced as Tennessee’s new coach, he assured you he would assemble one of the best coaching staffs in the country.
You can’t prove that by the resumes. But Tennessee fans can be encouraged by how well this staff has recruited.
The Vols already have 24 commitments and are well on their way to assembling a top-10 class. That’s quite an accomplishment for a new staff at a program that has had four losing seasons in the last five years.
Maybe the staff can coach just as well. It will have plenty of chances to prove itself season against one of the most challenging schedules in the country. Five of UT’s opponents are ranked in the preseason top 10.
For some of those coaches, the SEC presents a first-time experience. For others, it offers a chance for redemption.
Jones and four of his assistants have never coached in the SEC. Five of his assistants have coached at least one SEC school. Only secondary coach Willie Martinez has coached at two SEC schools, Georgia and Auburn.
Martinez might have more to prove than anyone on the staff.
He was fired as Mark Richt’s defensive coordinator at Georgia in 2009 and had the misfortune of signing on with Auburn before its disastrous 2012 season, which ended with a head-coaching change.
UT linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen also was on Gene Chizik’s staff — when Auburn won a national championship in 2010 and when it gave up 150 points in its last three SEC games in 2012.
Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek worked with Martinez at Georgia. He was the Bulldogs co-defensive coordinator in 2009 when they lost to the Vols 45-19 in Neyland Stadium.
Jancek also was a defensive coordinator at Cincinnati in 2011 when the Bearcats lost 45-23 in Neyland Stadium. So don’t bother telling him how down Tennessee has been.
UT running backs coach Robert Gillespie might not have an elite running back in his group, but he should fare better statistically than he did at South Carolina.
The Gamecocks never had a 1,000-yard rusher in his three seasons (2006-08) as running backs coach. They ranked 11th, fifth and 12th in the conference in rushing during that period.
Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni, who was an assistant coach at Wisconsin last season, has coached in the SEC only one season. He was Florida’s passing game coordinator in 2010 when it ranked 10th in the SEC in passing.
You might remember those were the post-Tebow Gators, sadly lacking in the kind of skill players who can power a passing game. Azzanni likely will have the same challenge in his first season with the Vols.
That’s an example of why you are on shaky ground anytime you try to evaluate assistant coaches solely on stats. They’re so dependent on the talent at their position.
The best way for Tennessee’s coaching staff to prove itself this season is by improving what talent it has.
After that, it’s all about recruiting.