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Tennessee's newest head coach, unlike his recent predecessors, has a background that suggests he is capable of competing in college football's toughest league — the Southeastern Conference.
InsideTennessee has confirmed through multiple sources that Butch Jones will be named the Vols' head coach Friday, filling the vacancy created by the Nov. 18 dismissal of Derek Dooley.
Whereas Lane Kiffin (2009) and Dooley (2010) came to Tennessee with zero head coaching experience at the BCS level, Jones has spent the past three seasons directing the Big East Conference's Cincinnati Bearcats.
Whereas Kiffin and Dooley had never served as play-callers, Jones coordinated offenses and called plays at Div. III Wilkes University (1992-94), Div. II Ferris State (1995-97) and Div. I Central Michigan (2002-04).
Whereas Kiffin (Monte) and Dooley (Vince) were best known for the accomplishments of famous fathers, Jones has made his own name. He guided Central Michigan to a 6-1 league record (8-6 overall) and the 2007 Mid-American Athletic Conference title in his very first year as a head coach. He went 8-5 (6-2) in 2008, then posted an 11-2 mark in 2009 that included an 8-0 MAC record and a No. 25 Associated Press national ranking.
Hired by Cincinnati after Brian Kelly left for Notre Dame in December of 2010, Jones struggled mightily in Year 1, going 4-8 overall and 2-5 in Big East play. He bounced back with a vengeance in 2011, however, earning Big East Coach of the Year honors after going 10-3, beating Vanderbilt 31-24 in the Liberty Bowl and finishing No. 25 nationally. His 2012 squad carries a 9-3 record into the Belk Bowl Dec. 27 against Duke, coached by former Vol offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. Each of Jones' last two Bearcat teams went 5-2 in league play to share first place in the Big East.
Lyle Allen "Butch" Jones, 44, has emerged as one of the most sought-after coaches in college football. He met with officials at Purdue on Sunday and with officials at Colorado on Monday. The Buffaloes reportedly offered him a five-year, $13.5 million contract earlier this week.
A Michigander by birth, Jones attended college at Ferris State in Big Rapids, then began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Rutgers (1990-91). He gained valuable experience as wide receivers coach under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia in 2005-06.
Although he inherits a program that posted three consecutive losing seasons under Dooley, Jones could get Tennessee to 6-6 or better in 2013 if he can keep his underclassmen from declaring for the NFL Draft. Quarterback Tyler Bray is mulling a jump to the pros, as are wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson.
Nine of the top 10 offensive linemen are scheduled to come back, with the only loss being senior guard Dallas Thomas.
Defensively, Tennessee returns 10 of its top 12 tacklers. The bell cow is rising junior linebacker A.J. Johnson, who led the SEC with 138 stops in 2012. Also expected back are fellow linebackers Curt Maggitt, Jacques Smith, Jordan Williams, Channing Fugate and Dontavis Sapp.
The line should return virtually intact, since first-teamers Maurice Couch, Daniel McCullers and Darrington Sentimore were all juniors in 2012. Second-team linemen Daniel Hood and Corey Miller also project to return.
The secondary was a disaster area in 2012 but the Vols should be better in 2013 if safety Brian Randolph returns to health following an ACL tear that caused him to miss the last nine games of this season. Returnees in the defensive backfield also include second-leading tackler Byron Moore, fourth-leading tackler Justin Coleman, fifth-leading tackler LaDarrell McNeil, seventh-leading tackler Jaron Toney and eighth-leading tackler Eric Gordon.
Tennessee also returns punter/place-kicker Michael Palardy and punt-return specialist Devrin Young. Patterson, if he returns, provides an outstanding kickoff-return specialist, having averaged 28.0 yards per runback in 2012.
The Vols will be hard-pressed to overtake Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in the SEC East next fall but they should improve on the 1-7 league records they posted in 2012 and 2013 if they have the right man running the program. Athletics director Dave Hart believes that man is Butch Jones.