Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Ever since Phillip Fulmer was dismissed as Tennessee's head coach following the 2008 season, the program has been searching high and low for the right man to lead it back to national prominence.
First it was Lane Kiffin, who showed plenty of promise in 2009 after going 7-6, but it turned out to be his only season in Knoxville as he abruptly departed to fill to open head coaching position at USC.
Then the school turned to Derek Dooley, who had enjoyed tremendous success at Louisiana Tech, but the decision proved to be an unmitigated failure. In three seasons (2010-12), Dooley finished with a sub-.500 record three times, a fate that Fulmer suffered only twice in 16 years.
These have been dark days for the once-proud and mighty Tennessee football program, a team that between 1989 and 2007, proved to be a national mainstay by winning eight or more games in 18 out of 19 seasons, with the peak coming in 1998 when Fulmer led the squad to a 13-0 mark and the national championship.
After a few failed experiments at head coach, the school hopes that Butch Jones can provide a much-needed turnaround.
Jones is relatively new to the head coaching game. After spending the better part of two decades as an offensive assistant at several schools, Jones was hired at Central Michigan in 2007 and led the Chippewas to a 27-13 record in three seasons. His success in the Mid-American Conference landed him a gig in the Big East, being named Brian Kelly's successor at Cincinnati in 2010, and after struggling in his first season (4-8), he went a combined 19-6 in 2011 and 2012, earning shares of the conference crown each time.
Jones has moved quickly through the FBS ranks, as he is now situated in the most prominent college football conference in the country with a chance to prove his worth against the many powerhouse programs that make up the SEC, and although transforming the Vols back into legitimate player surely won't happen overnight, Jones is up to the challenge.
"It is truly an honor and a privilege to be the head football coach at the University of Tennessee," Jones said at his introductory press conference back in December. "I understand the values, traditions, and level of expectations that come with this position, and I look forward to being a part of the Vol Nation. I look forward to the Vols achieving excellence both on and off the field for many years to come."
Now that the program believes its has found its man to get the team back on track, the big question that remains is how will Jones turn around a squad that looked so lost for most of last season? The good news for the new coach is that any new life breathed into the program will be a step in the right direction.
Tennessee's biggest issue last season was its porous defense, which ranked among the worst in the FBS in allowing 35.7 ppg and 471.4 ypg. Although his roots may be in offense, Jones established an outstanding defensive mind-set at Cincinnati over the past couple of seasons, as the Bearcats ranked in the nation's top-20 in scoring defense in both 2011 and 2012.
Despite the Vols' lackluster defense from a year ago, they still possess plenty of talent on that side of the ball, giving hope for significant improvement. Linebacker A.J. Johnson was one of the nation's top tacklers a season ago with 138 total stops. Byron Moore is a playmaking safety attempting to improve upon an outstanding sophomore campaign (86 tackles, five INTs), while Jacques Smith (seven TFL) and Justin Coleman (59 tackles) also bring a veteran presence to the unit.
Unlike the defense, the offense had little problem shining in 2012, as it tallied more than 36 ppg, but oddly enough, the unit remains an even bigger question mark than the defense heading into the 2013 season following the early departures of quarterback Tyler Bray (3,612 yards, 34 TDs) and wide receivers Justin Hunter (1,083 yards, nine TDs) and Cordarrelle Patterson (778 receiving yards, 308 rushing yards, 10 total TDs).
Jones has spent the spring evaluating the prospects trying to replace Bray under center, and it appears to be a two-horse race between sophomore Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman. Neither took full advantage of their opportunities during the team's spring game back in April, however, with each completing less than 50 percent of his passes.
"Just like every position, (the QB competition) will be wide open," Jones said. "The growth that a football team can make from May to the end of July can be monumental, if they buy in and work exceptionally hard."
Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will have a host of inexperienced receivers to throw to - Alton Howard (13 receptions in 2012) is the top returning outside threat - but at least he will have a veteran crew to lean on in the backfield, as Rajion Neal (708 rushing yards, five TDs) and Marlin Lane (658 rushing yards, 29 receptions) both proved to be reliable options at running back.
Expecting Tennessee to make a significant splash this fall is foolish, especially considering its brutal schedule that includes an away matchup against two-time defending national champion Alabama, as well as several other contests again bowl-caliber foes (Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri, Vanderbilt).
After a couple of hiring missteps, the Vols have rebooted once again and they can only hope that, unlike the last couple of new hires, Jones will bring about better results for 2013 and beyond.