Back by overwhelming demand, FootballScoop will once again examine the assistant coaching hires that will have the biggest impact on the college football season and the coaching job market in the 2019 season and beyond.
No. 19: Bryan Brown, Louisville
No. 18: Phil Longo, North Carolina
No. 17: Les Koenning, Kansas
No. 16: Andy Avalos, Oregon
No. 15: Joe Cauthen, Houston
No. 14: Bodie Reeder, North Texas
No. 13: Mike MacIntyre, Ole Miss
No. 12: Andy Ludwig, Utah
No. 11: Kenny Dillingham, Auburn
Who: Jim Chaney, Tennessee
Title: Offensive coordinator
Previous stop: Georgia offensive coordinator (2016-18)
Why he’s important: Tyson Helton left Knoxville to become Western Kentucky’s head coach on Nov. 28. Nearly six weeks later, Tennessee still didn’t have an offensive coordinator. In the interim, all kinds of candidates were mentioned for the job. They were keeping it in-house, no they were hiring this guy or that guy.
In the end, Jeremy Pruitt had his guy in mind. A former Nick Saban defensive coordinator had to wait, and wait and wait and wait, to hire away the coordinator of another former Nick Saban defensive coordinator. His target: the most SEC of OCs, the offensive answer to John Chavis.
Chaney isn’t a born-and-bred Southerner and took his sweet time getting there. A native Missourian, he was 42 when he first joined the conference, and what a time he picked. He joined Lane Kiffin’s inaugural staff back in 2009, then remained for the next three seasons on Derek Dooley’s staff.
After surviving his initiation to #ItJustMeansMore, Chaney was tapped by Bret Bielema to handle his attempt to get big and bully the rest of the SEC. Two years in, Arkansas actually ran for 10 fewer yards per game under Chaney than they did John L. Smith, though Chaney elevated the Hogs’ passing game from the SEC’s next-to-worst most efficient to first in a span of two years.
That led to a 1-year sojourn at Pittsburgh before Kirby Smart tapped him to run his Georgia offense, and it would be hard to call his three years in Athens anything other than a smashing success. Georgia’s yards per play under Chaney rose from 5.44 in 2016 to 6.70 in 2017 to 7.05 last season. The Bulldogs led the conference in rushing yards per game and per carry each of the past two seasons, and quarterback Jake Fromm finished fifth nationally in passing efficiency, posting numbers that would have led the country a decade ago.
“Comparing me to (my first stint at Tennessee), I understand the importance of physicality more now,” Chaney told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Playing physical football gives you the opportunity to be successful.”
Tennessee, meanwhile, finished last in the SEC in total offense and 13th in scoring and yards per play.
Chaney’s hiring was less a strategic chess ploy to weaken an SEC East rival and/or a dramatic scheme overhaul and more a move to bring in someone Pruitt is comfortable handing the reins over to.
“Jim does a fantastic job, he has experience in this league,” Pruitt told WNML in January. “I think he’s one of the best offensive coordinators in the country and he’s done it a bunch of different ways. If you look at his history by throwing it nearly every single play, he’s done it by running a lot, he’s done it with balance. He has a system but one of the unique things he does is he finds out who the playmakers are on his football team and finds a way to get them the ball. He has familiarity with this league, which I think is important. I think this is one of the best defensive leagues in all of college football. A lot of really good defensive coaches in this league and you have to find ways to be creative and I think Jim has done a fantastic job of doing that.”
Chaney will be a walk-around coordinator, overseeing an offensive staff that also saw Vol legend Tee Martin hired as assistant head coach, passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach, David Johnson as running backs coach and Heisman winner Chris Weinke moved from running backs to quarterbacks.
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is back for seemingly a ninth season, as are the Vols’ top three running backs (Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, Jeremy Banks), as are all but seven of Tennessee’s 176 total receptions from last season. But none of that matters if the offensive line doesn’t improve. The Vols have posted the SEC’s worst yards per carry average for two years running, and their 92 tackles for loss allowed were the most in the conference.
To fix that, Tennessee will play true freshmen at right and left tackle, while the best player on the team, junior Trey Smith, is battling to get back on the field due to a lingering blood clot issue. The 2019 Vols offensive line will certainly be younger than the 2018 edition, but they’ll also be bigger and stronger.
Tennessee’s offense won’t become 2017-18 Georgia overnight, but if Pruitt is to bring the Vols back to prominence, it will be with Chaney as offensive coordinator. No fan base in college football is more starved for success than the Big Orange Nation. Given that, it seems more likely Tennessee would give Phillip Fulmer a chance to hire a second head coach than let Pruitt cycle through a third offensive coordinator.