This is the latest in a series examining the 15 most important assistant coaching hires of the 2018 season. Previous installments:
No. 15: Rod Smith, Illinois
No. 14: Matt Canada, Maryland
No. 13: Harlon Barnett, Florida State
No. 12: Jerry Azzinaro, UCLA
No. 11: Bob Shoop, Mississippi State
No. 10: Clark Lea, Notre Dame
No. 9: Bush Hamdan, Washington
No. 8: Herb Hand, Texas
Who: Tyson Helton, Tennessee
Title: Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach
Previous stop: USC passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach (2016-17)
Why he’s important: The Tennessee job is the biggest of Jeremy Pruitt’s life. Bar none. Everything Pruitt has done in his 44 years on this planet and 21 seasons in the coaching business has built toward this exact moment. Maybe he takes over for Nick Saban at his alma mater one day, maybe he moves on to the NFL or maybe he sticks around in Knoxville as the second coming of General Robert Neyland. The possibilities are endless, but one thing is certain: that future will be written through what happens in the next 2-to-4 years.
As such, Tyson Helton is the biggest hire Pruitt will ever make in his life.
And that’s why he’s such an interesting choice.
Helton is well qualified for the position. Schooled under the likes of June Jones and Jeff Brohm, Helton’s work at USC most likely saved the staff’s jobs in 2016, as redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold rescued the Trojans from a 1-3 start to a 9-0 finish, capped by a thrilling Rose Bowl win and No. 3 final ranking.
Helton has made his mark in the game by working with big-armed, scoreboard-popping quarterbacks. Before he mentored the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, Helton spent two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky, where he guided Brandon Doughty to throw for 371.5 yards per game in 2014 and 361.1 per game in 2015, leading the Hilltoppers to a 12-2 mark, a Conference USA title and a No. 24 final ranking.
The natural question, then, is how Helton will pair with a defense-first and defense-second head coach.
That's just asking too much from any D. Someone close to Pruitt told me this: "Being his OC is gonna be tough. He wants to score on every possession but he wants to bleed the clock just as bad."
"So, just 12 yards a carry, huh?" I asked.
"Think five yards, actually."
— David Ubben (@davidubben) July 10, 2018
“Tyson is very detailed,” Pruitt said this spring. “He’s very demanding. I’ve sat in a lot of his meetings here with the players, and he does a fantastic job. He’s very thorough; he goes through everything from getting the calls, signals, pre-snap, indicators, protections. He doesn’t coach with his hands in his pockets, I can assure you. He’s out there getting after them.”
The good news — if you want to call it that — is that Helton takes over a Tennessee offense fresh off hitting rock bottom. The Vols suffered through the first 0-8 SEC season in program history in 2017, and the blame for such a season largely falls at the feet of the offense. Tennessee finished last in the SEC in scoring — 19.8 points per game, 2.3 points per game behind No. 13 Florida, the largest such deficit since 2014 — while ranking 11th in the league in passing efficiency and 14th in yards per carry and TFLs allowed per game.
The QB1 job figures to be a competition between sophomores Jarrett Guarantano and Will McBride and Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst, the offensive line returns three starters — including future first-round pick Trey Smith at left tackle — and the skill positions offer plenty of youth despite losing bell cow running back John Kelly. Most importantly: the players should be hungry and receptive to change after last season’s crash-and-burn campaign.
Strong. Powerful. Explosive.
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) April 3, 2018
“He’s just extremely passionate,” former WKU and current Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Forrest Lamp told the Knoxville News-Sentinel in April. “He’s fiery. He’ll throw chairs. He screams. He’s somebody that, as a player, when you watch him speak right before the game, you cannot be any more pumped up. You’re just so excited to play the game, not just for yourself and your teammates, but for him. And you don’t want to let him down.”