Tennessee Football: Biggest Storylines So Far This Offseason
If you've turned on sports news at all during 2016, it's been impossible to avoid information about Tennessee. Unfortunately for the Volunteers, a lot of that has shed a negative light on Rocky Top.
No matter how much UT fans want to forget about the Title IX lawsuit looming, it's still there and has been very much a part of multiple news cycles since early February. While it hasn't completely dampened the excitement over the on-field hopes in Knoxville, it does leave a bit of a rain cloud.
Now that spring practice has kicked off, most of the attention has shifted back between the lines, and everybody at UT—including head coach Butch Jones—is grateful.
After all, that's where Tennessee may wind up putting together a championship contender if the Vols can put all clutter in the rear-view mirror.
"There's an elephant in the room, and I think you all know what we're going through," Jones said recently at the Carson-Newman Football Championship Coaching Clinic, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel's Dustin Dopirak. "Don't believe everything you read and hear. I promise you that."
It hasn't all been negative this offseason. The Vols put together yet another top-notch recruiting class, they got some great news with upperclassmen electing to return and one of the nation's top assistants decided he wanted to be a part of what UT is building.
From new players coming in to leave a legacy to the Ultimate Vol saying goodbye, it's been a particularly newsy few months.
Let's take a look at the biggest storylines that have reached the hills of Tennessee so far since UT's dismantling of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl closed a successful 2015 season.
Title IX Lawsuit
Unless you've been in hibernation under a rock that existed in another country without televisions, you know the plight that Tennessee is facing off the field.
UT is the target of a federal lawsuit that alleges the university created a "hostile sexual environment" and violated Title IX law with its handling of sexual assault claims against athletes. The lawsuit mentions and accuses five former or current football players, among other athletes.
Jones suspended each of those football players when news became public of the individual events in the past, but the lawsuit puts them all together in this civil suit.
For the better part of a month after the suit was filed in early February, the slow trickle of news felt like a death-by-a-thousand-paper-cuts situation. It's been all through local news outlets and leading national newscasts.
Even favorite son Peyton Manning was named in the lawsuit for an incident that allegedly occurred in the late 1990s, per SI.com's Michael McCann. The breadth of the environment the lawsuit is alleging ranges back several decades.
Perhaps the most damaging accusation came when former UT and current Chattanooga receiver Drae Bowles said in a sworn affidavit that Jones called him a "traitor" for helping a woman who was allegedly raped by two former UT football players.
It's an accusation Jones vehemently denied in a statement, according to CBSSports.com's Tom Fornelli:
The assertion that I ever attempted to belittle or demean a young man for taking action to help another person is absolutely false. To the contrary, I did all I could to assist the former student in question. During the course of the judicial process, campus officials, as well as the young man's own words, will clearly establish that I have done nothing wrong. I will fight all of these false attacks on my character, and I know that once this process has been completed, my reputation will be affirmed.
While news about the lawsuit has been sparse recently, it's wishful thinking for UT to believe it's going away any time soon. The university likely already would have tried to settle if it was going to, so UT could fight this for the long haul.
It has the potential to be a major distraction in a season where many expect the Vols to be extremely good, but that hasn't happened yet. Tennessee appears focused on the practice field this spring.
Can it stay that way on the field while facing scrutiny off it? That may wind up being the theme of the season.
As much as Tennessee fans want to forget about what's going on, as Jones said, it's an elephant in the room. He has to keep it from wrecking the place.
The Coup of Bob Shoop
It's far from all bad on Rocky Top.
One of the most shocking developments this offseason was longtime James Franklin assistant Bob Shoop leaving his post at Penn State, where he had become one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the nation, to head back to the SEC.
Shoop—who was the defensive coordinator for UT rival Vanderbilt during Franklin's tenure—loved the state of Tennessee and jumped at the opportunity to return.
"Bob has established himself as one of the premier coordinators in all of college football and is very well-respected as a recruiter, football coach and person," Jones said, according to ESPN.com's Edward Aschoff, once Shoop was secured. "He brings a wealth of experience at the highest level and possesses all the qualities we were looking for as we went through this process."
While he paid his own buyout to leave Happy Valley, he won't have one in Knoxville. That means he's essentially a free agent who could leave for a head coaching gig (or any other job) at any time. But this wound up being the perfect opportunity for both sides.
On UT's end, the Vols dropped former coordinator John Jancek after he did a solid job the past three seasons because they saw an opportunity to upgrade. Shoop, after all, is one of the best, and that's backed up by his defense's statistics. With all the talent UT returns, it could be a next-level defense this year and next.
If Shoop does what he's expected to and makes a team full of top-notch talent an elite unit, he'll undoubtedly get the chance to be a head coach in the next few years. Considering the struggles Franklin experienced on the field the past couple of years, that deal was anything but a sure thing.
Shoop already is not shying away from the swagger UT should have this spring, telling GoVols247's Wes Rucker of the expectations.
"You have to embrace it," Shoop said. "The thing I'm so excited about with Team 120 is that they're so confident coming off last season, but they've embraced the winter program. They're worked hard in the weight room in the winter program, and they've watched a significant part of film on their own, and they're not satisfied."
Shoop brings his own huge expectations in name recognition. There's no question he was a marquee hire and somebody who could potentially take the Vols to a championship level on that side of the ball.
Now, he's got to produce with games on the line.
Vols' Torrid Recruiting Finish
Tennessee's smallish class of 21 players was never going to be as highly ranked as Jones' past two top-10 classes on Rocky Top.
But a 36-hour flurry on the day before national signing day and on the day itself led to a solid showing in the final rankings, where Tennessee wound up 14th nationally, according to the 247Sports composite rankings.
The Vols started the fantastic close on the Tuesday night prior to national signing day when fans already buzzing about their team's basketball upset of Kentucky in Thompson-Boling Arena heard about dynamic 4-star defensive back Tyler Byrd flipping from Miami to UT.
The athletic defender showed out in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and wound up electing to join his close friend, UT running back signee Carlin Fils-Aime, in Knoxville.
On the Wednesday morning of national signing day, 4-star defensive back Nigel Warrior decided to join in father Dale Carter's footsteps and play for the Vols. Carter was a former UT All-American, and Warrior has huge upside as well. He chose the Vols over Auburn, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Ohio State and others.
The day got even better when speedy 3-star receiver Latrell Williams pulled a Byrd and also flipped from Mark Richt's Hurricanes. Williams gives Tennessee a big-time playmaker and adds the much-needed element of speed to the receiving corps.
Finally, on that Wednesday afternoon, the Vols did something that's difficult to accomplish these days in recruiting: They got a premier player who had decommitted earlier and opened things up to recommit to them at the end of the recruiting cycle.
In this case, that player was defensive end Jonathan Kongbo, the nation's top-ranked overall JUCO player and a potential difference-maker right away once he arrives in Knoxville.
The finish led for an exciting few hours for Tennessee fans who'd been sweating out the final few days. It has been Jones' M-O to be nearly finished with his signing class in the days leading up to the end. There may be a player or two who have provided drama at the end, but the Vols are usually close to finished.
That wasn't the case this year, and the head coach continued to flex his recruiting muscle by proving he can close as well as build a class throughout the cycle. The four pledges at the end really made the '16 class a memorable one.
Now, those players have to produce on the field.
Terrific Trio Treks Back to Tennessee
Those expectations to which Shoop was referring were going to be huge regardless, but Tennessee is much more equipped to handle them considering three of its biggest stars will be around to help.
Yes, the Vols got some disappointing news when junior receiver Marquez North decided to leave early for the NFL and defensive leader Curt Maggitt elected not to seek a sixth year of eligibility.
But the biggest three all chose to play another year at Tennessee.
That would be outside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cameron Sutton and running back Alvin Kamara—all of whom seriously flirted with turning pro before deciding to be a part of the 2016 Vols for one more go-around.
Kamara's decision to seriously seek leaving early may have been the biggest surprise, but the redshirt sophomore running back was probably not going to see his stock soar much higher because he simply isn't projected to be an every-down back on the next level.
Despite the '17 running back draft class looking like arguably the best ever (headlined by guys like LSU's Leonard Fournette, Georgia's Nick Chubb, Oregon's Royce Freeman, teammate Jalen Hurd and perhaps even Stanford's Christian McCaffrey, among others), Kamara came back.
The opportunity to be part of something special may have helped, but Kamara should see a bigger role in the offense and on special teams in 2016. If he can diversify his portfolio, so to speak, he's got the kind of speed and athleticism to wow at the combine and surge up draft boards.
Reeves-Maybin and Sutton are the biggest recruits Shoop could have hoped to secure. In Reeves-Maybin, the Vols return a tackling machine who also will be one of the smartest defenders in the entire country.
Given his familiarity with Shoop from the relationship the two developed during recruiting when Shoop was trying to lure him to Vanderbilt, they've got a knowledge of one another, and JRM knows the concepts Shoop likes to run. That will be invaluable to a UT defense learning the nuances of a new coordinator's scheme.
Finally, Sutton has the ability to become a first- or second-round selection. Some experts thought he may be that this past year, but he didn't have the most consistent junior year. With the '17 class of defensive backs not being as deep as this year's, Sutton's skills may shine even brighter.
The Vols expect him to be a shutdown presence on the boundary, and his return instantly makes UT a ton better on the back end. Hopefully, it'll result in a big payday for him down the road, too.
So Long, Sheriff
It has been 19 years since Peyton Manning wore the orange and white as the signal-caller on Rocky Top. At Tennessee, he got robbed of the Heisman Trophy and set passing record after passing record as a Volunteer.
But to not include the future first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer's retirement among UT's biggest storylines this offseason would be ridiculous.
Manning is synonymous with Tennessee.
He's the brother who shunned father Archie's legacy at Ole Miss to head to Knoxville to play for Phillip Fulmer and offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. He's the legend on the tip of every recruit's tongue when mentioning UT as a team he's considering. Manning is the Vol of all Vols.
He comes back to Knoxville every offseason and works with Tennessee quarterbacks, and on bye weeks and the week before the NFL season starts, you can always find him on the UT sideline, no matter the coach, record or situation facing his alma mater.
"We are so fortunate we have Peyton as an ambassador to the University of Tennessee," Jones told the Knoxville News Sentinel's Mike Strange. "It's really hard to put into words what he has accomplished in his career. Peyton defines excellence in every sense of the word. He was prepared for every situation, and that came through meticulous work when no one was watching.''
Manning is the greatest Vol of all time because he's the most recognizable Vol of all time.
Despite some events that threatened to significantly tarnish his reputation in the past year—from the performance-enhancing drugs scandal to the Jamie Naughright allegations to his benching for a stretch of Denver's Super Bowl season—he's handled himself with class and dignity.
Manning not only has remained the face of Tennessee football for the better part of two decades, he did so while being the face of the NFL for much of his career, with his mug plastered all over commercials, billboards and in entertainment across all media.
His self-deprecating humor mixed with his intense on-field persona and willingness to always speak to reporters no matter the situation has endeared him to millions.
The Sheriff rode out on top a week ago and said goodbye to a game that's tough to envision without him.
Despite an injury-plagued final season, he was reinserted into the Broncos' starting lineup and led the team throughout the playoffs and to a Super Bowl 50 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
Even in doing so, Manning wasn't his normal highlight-reel self. His passes lost plenty of zip from his glory days, and though he was never fleet of foot, it was painful at times to watch him roll out and run head coach Gary Kubiak's offense.
After securing his second title, it was time to go, and Manning did so in style. He, of course, acknowledged UT in his retirement speech, according to ESPN.com's full transcript of his speech:
Almost 19 years ago to the day, I announced my decision to forgo the draft and stay at the University of Tennessee for my senior year. It was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. I cherished my time in Knoxville, especially my senior year. And I want Vols fans everywhere to know the unique role that you’ve played in my life.
Tennessee fans everywhere can say the same.
All quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered at UTSports.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.