Tennessee Football: Offseason Goals for Volunteers Offense
With Thursday's news that offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian is parting ways with the Tennessee football program, question marks suddenly became abundant for the Volunteers offense.
Bajakian's departure—first reported by FoxSports.com's Bruce Feldman—leaves UT without a clear direction two weeks before national signing day and two months before the start of spring practice.
Head coach Butch Jones needs to make the right hire to facilitate his offensive philosophy into a brighter, more talent-laden era in Tennessee football.
But with plenty of playmakers in place, the goals for this Vols offense don't stop with the new hire. As a matter of fact, the person whom Jones brings in will be charged with the task of doing much better than Bajakian's two rocky seasons on Rocky Top.
With potential stars in place such as quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, the foundation is there for this group to make a major step forward.
Yes, the hire will be vital, but it's also exciting to think of who UT could lure because of all the elite players on campus.
Between the promise of some new play-calling chops (despite the swirling uncertainty) and the brimming pool of prospects ready to break out, this offseason could be a springboard.
Let's take a look at some important steps the unit must take before a 2015 season that will carry elevated expectations with it.
Hire a Dynamic Offensive Coordinator
He was handcuffed by injuries at quarterback and wide receiver as well as personnel/scheme mismatches during his first two seasons, but the bottom line is Mike Bajakian's offenses struggled.
The rough patch talent-wise is now over. Whoever the new OC is may not be getting the keys to an Aston Martin, but it's a pretty nice set of wheels. He just needs to make sure not to wreck it.
There are a few different ways head coach Butch Jones can go in this important decision.
It's going to be interesting to see what he does. With the loyalty this staff has shown over the years, he hasn't had to make very many crucial hires such as this.
First, he needs to make sure to get a guy who either shares his offensive identity or can adapt his scheme to the personnel already in place. You don't spend two-plus seasons recruiting to a power spread-option style and finally get a potential star maestro to lead it in Joshua Dobbs only to go exclusively pro-style.
Decisions like that get you fired quickly, and there's no reason to believe Jones will do anything that rash.
Secondly, the Vols need to inject some creativity. The offense has been vanilla under Bajakian with very little action downfield. There's nothing wrong with the scheme, but just when Bajakian showed signs of opening things up in the TaxSlayer Bowl, he's gone.
The players are in place now to take some chances. They just need the right man to lead them.
Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni has been with Jones, is familiar with the head coach's philosophy and is considered a young upstart offensive mind. Promoting him wouldn't be a bad idea.
With ties to Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and having been at three different head-coaching stops, Jones likely has a short list of candidates in place. It'll be interesting to see what he does, how the titles change and what direction the staff moves in going forward.
One thing's for certain: This offense has the players in place for the new guy to press the gas pedal down a little further than Bajakian ever did. Get a guy in place as quickly as possible and then bring the team on board with blending the new ideas into the scheme already in place.
Integrate Alvin Kamara into the Offense
Tennessee has another potential star to add to its offensive backfield to take some of the pressure off stud sophomore Jalen Hurd.
Now, the Vols just need to get Alvin Kamara the rock and let him display his sick skill set.
The former Alabama player and second-ranked JUCO running back is the perfect complement to Hurd's size and strength. He's far from a scatback, but Kamara can do some things with his change-of-direction and open-field vision that Hurd can't.
His JUCO coach at Hutchinson Community College told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Michael Carvell that Kamara reminded him of another UT star:
"Alvin is freakish like Cordarrelle Patterson, who played here," Hutchinson coach Rion Rhoades said. "I would say that Alvin is the only one who approaches that ability level here in my time at Hutchinson. They are both in that super-elite category, in my opinion."
That's the ideal scenario for a Vols team that struggled to put solid running backs on the field in 2014. Kamara can be more than solid; he's got special ability. He joins Hurd and Ralph David Abernathy IV in a thin UT backfield.
Tennessee did get some more great news on the recruiting trail Thursday when John Kelly committed to UT over Michigan and Minnesota, among others, according to 247Sports' Steve Wiltfong. He will add much-needed depth.
But 2015 will be Hurd's and Kamara's show. They have the potential to become a dynamic duo that can take some of the pressure off Joshua Dobbs and help him to be the dual-threat star he has shown flashes of being.
Kamara is the kind of talent who could be the SEC's top newcomer next year even with Hurd still getting his share of carries. The new offensive coordinator needs to get him in the film room and find ways to get Kamara the football.
His skills will do the rest.
Don Mahoney Needs to Earn His Money
It was difficult to be excited about a lot of things offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was doing, but perhaps the most maligned coach on the current staff is Don Mahoney.
The offensive line coach inherited a group with five veterans, including three guys who wound up rookie starters in the NFL and another who left after his junior year. That group underachieved in 2013.
Then, the Vols had to replace the entire line this past season and again (predictably) struggled.
Even though the personnel isn't yet in place for UT's offensive line to be a team strength in 2015, excuse time is over. The unit appears to be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a quality Vols offense. It needs to be vastly improved next year.
The TaxSlayer Bowl offered a glimmer of hope as the unit opened massive running holes and pushed around Iowa's front seven. But the Hawkeyes were far from an SEC power.
An offseason in the weight room, the incorporation of some new blood into the offensive tackle rotation and a strong recruiting class must pay immediate dividends.
At tackle, the Vols need one more player in this recruiting class, but midterm enrollees Jack Jones and Chance Hall have the ability and opportunity to help immediately. While Kyler Kerbyson, Coleman Thomas and Brett Kendrick return as linemen who logged time at offensive tackle, the big wild card is Dontavius Blair.
Blair redshirted in a season where he was supposed to step in and start at left tackle. The Vols need him to live up to his potential and perhaps get some surprising help from a freshman or Charles Mosley, who redshirted in 2014 after breaking his leg in a car wreck.
On the interior, Jashon Robertson and Marcus Jackson are set at guard. But Mack Crowder needs to build off his strong bowl game and have a much more consistent senior season than he did this year.
There are plenty of bodies. UT must find a group that can advance the offense. That's Mahoney's job, plain and simple. If he doesn't do it, he may be looking for another one this time next year.
Find the Future Quarterback
It's quite the luxury for Tennessee to have two of its three touted quarterback recruits already on campus and primed to go through spring practice in late March.
What's not nearly as envious news for the Vols is one of them very well could find himself as UT's second-string quarterback come late August.
Junior Nathan Peterman has never played any quality game snaps since arriving at Tennessee. That isn't to say he's incapable; only that he's done nothing to instill confidence that he should be the man should something happen to incumbent Joshua Dobbs.
Freshmen Quinten Dormady and Jauan Jennings are extremely talented options who will have every opportunity to be groomed as the future of the position. When Sheriron Jones arrives this summer, he will be thrown into the fray as well.
Regardless of whether one of the talented trio winds up as Dobbs' backup, their resumes will be evident before next season. Sometimes, players show early signs of having what it takes to play the position in the SEC. Other times, it's clear early that it isn't going to work out.
Then there are players like Dobbs who blossom a little later in the game than others.
The new offensive coordinator will have the opportunity to see what he has in Dormady, Jennings and Jones. Two of those will have a head start on the competition and could immediately factor into UT's future in 2015.
Therefore it's vital to balance bringing them along as quickly as possible while managing each of them in the ways that's best for their individual development.
It's not hyperbole to suggest that the program's bright future hinges on the shoulders of these three and 2016 quarterback commit Austin Kendall. You can't win big without a strong signal-caller. The search begins immediately.
Get Ethan Wolf Some Help
Much of the early offseason talk has surrounded Tennessee's lack of depth at quarterback and running back, and rightfully so. But another key position to the success of Butch Jones' offense is also short of experience.
Tight ends coach Mark Elder has seen his film room diminish by three this offseason. Brendan Downs and Woody Quinn are out of eligibility, and promising rising sophomore Daniel Helm transferred to Duke.
That leaves star sophomore Ethan Wolf, rising senior former walk-on Alex Ellis (who recently was rewarded with a scholarship) and a few guys with solid skills but little experience.
A.J. Branisel redshirted last year recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament after a freshman season in which he caught three balls, including a touchdown against Georgia. He wasn't going to factor much into the rotation last year, which makes you wonder how much he will in '15.
That leaves a pair of players who are extremely intriguing. One is 6'3", 229-pound redshirt freshman athlete Neiko Creamer, who bounced around from wide receiver to outside linebacker before finally settling in at tight end.
UT has a sort of big brother program where an upperclassman removes a newcomer's black helmet stripe when he feels the younger player has earned the right to be a full-fledged member of the team. Creamer must have begun showing signs of becoming a player during bowl practice because that's when his was removed.
A player with his size and athleticism could be a huge mismatch for defenses, and it's going to be interesting to see how he develops and if he will factor into the rotation.
Kyle Oliver, a 3-star tight end from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, thus far has shrugged off late interest from Alabama and other programs, and if UT can hang onto him, he will have an opportunity to get on the field.
Regardless, Wolf is the bell cow, and Ellis has played a lot of snaps, too. But this offense loves utilizing the tight end and needs a few able bodies. Some of the unproven guys have to step up.
Turn Marquez North into an Alpha Dog
Ability is never in question when it comes to receiver Marquez North.
But durability and consistency have been a couple of understandable question marks for the 6'4", 221-pound receiver who is a physical specimen and looks like a marquee pass-catcher waiting to blossom.
The biggest question around North is: When will he?
After a freshman season that saw North burst onto the scene with 38 catches for 496 yards and a touchdown, despite the myriad quarterback issues in Knoxville, he couldn't take a big step forward last year. He followed up his inaugural campaign with 30 catches for 320 yards and four scores.
His propensity to find the end zone was much improved, but he still was far from dominant. Then, a shoulder injury cut his season three games short.
Tennessee has a bevy of talent to which Joshua Dobbs can throw, but the Vols need a definitive go-to guy. North has that ability, but he hasn't lived up to his massive potential. Somebody needs to get in his ear, make him realize that he has the physique to overpower most cornerbacks and get him to play with a ferocity that can make him a star.
It's in him. He just has to tap into it.
He has the work ethic, and his toughness led him to try to play through the shoulder injury before trainers made him have surgery. Everything is there. He just needs to put it all together. If he does, North can be elite and lead UT's offense to big numbers.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.