When Larry Scott got the call, he was walking through the Charlotte airport, hurrying to get back home after a recruiting swing through Florida. It was mid-January, and although Tennessee’s then-tight ends coach was only a few hours away from touching down in Knoxville in time for a busy weekend of official visits, this couldn’t wait. Coach Butch Jones wanted Scott to know the news first: He would be promoted to offensive coordinator.
Scott wasn’t the splashy hire many Tennessee fans were looking for, clamoring over coaching hot boards that included the likes of former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and current USC coordinator Tee Martin. As is often the case with in-house hirings, the promotion of Scott, a 40-year-old fixture of South Florida football, was met with some level of skepticism. While he’d served briefly as Miami’s interim head coach when Al Golden was fired midway through the 2015 season, he hadn’t been a full-fledged coordinator since his days at Freedom High School in Orlando in 2001.
But what Scott lacked in credentials, he made up for in familiarity, acing what Jones referred to as a "year-round interview" during his time on staff working under former offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. Jones saw the way Scott commanded the practice field, built relationships and paid close attention to details as a position coach, making promoting him "pretty much a no-brainer," he said.
“Coach was going to do his due diligence,” Scott told ESPN. “I didn’t focus on that. I focused on the job I had. We were in a busy time recruiting and I had a pretty heavy area in the state of Florida. So we were knee-deep in it and I never really concerned myself with what other names were out there.”
With signing day around the corner, there wasn’t much time to celebrate his new title. Of the Vols’ 27 total signees, seven were from Florida.
But when recruiting wound down, the real work as coordinator began. Scott called it a “fact-finding” period of time in which everything was evaluated from top to bottom.
And that’s when it had to hit Scott what he’d signed up to do. This was a Tennessee program suddenly without its longtime starter at quarterback. Its top rushers from each of the previous two seasons were gone as well. And on top of all that, its leading receiver unexpectedly decided to turn pro as a junior.
“That’s an awful lot of production to replace,” Scott said. “But as a coach, you look at it also as an exciting time.”
No, this wasn’t some kind of fever dream Scott was having. This wasn’t spin. This was a coach who, like many in his business, relishes the idea of building something from the ground up.
“It’s an invigorating time because the energy is different,” Scott said. “You have young players in the program that are talented or they wouldn’t be playing at the University of Tennessee. ‘Here’s my chance. Here’s my opportunity to show what I bring to the table.’ So you had a newfound energy among young, talented kids that are in the weight room busting their tails.”
A determined Scott added: “Those guys will show up. Guys will step in those shoes and that production will be found.”
Jarrett Guarantano and Quinten Dormady are the leading candidates to replace Josh Dobbs at quarterback. While it’s still early at spring practice, Scott likes what he’s seen from the group and said what he’s seeking most is consistency, whether that’s understanding of the offense, execution or leading others.
From his new office overlooking Tennessee’s indoor practice facility and nearby weight room, Scott could see which quarterbacks were working hardest during the offseason.
While the NCAA limits contact, Scott said coyly that “things are noticed and taken note of.”
Across the board, spots are open, Scott said.
Other than Jauan Jennings, the team’s second-leading receiver last season, nothing is settled among the wideouts. John Kelly has the look of a starter at running back, but depth is a concern at the position. And while there’s a lot of returning experience on the offensive line, a lack of production from that group means competition is a necessity.
One player fans are eager to see on the field is offensive lineman and former No. 1 overall recruit Trey Smith. It’s early, but the freshman from Jackson, Tennessee, already has SEC size at 6-foot-6 and 313 pounds, and he appears to have the right mindset to play early as well.
“For a young kid, as young as he is, the transition has been seamless,” said Scott, who praised Smith’s overall demeanor. “Been very, very pleased with him and where he’s at. And really looking forward to him continuing to build each and every day to get better and better and put himself into position to be a big piece of what we’re going to do here moving forward.”
Tennessee’s Orange & White Spring Game is three weeks away, and the season opener against Georgia Tech in Atlanta is roughly five months away.
What the Vols’ offense will look like on Sept. 4 is unclear. Scott said he wants to use the spring to determine the strengths of the roster, and build a philosophy around that.
Scott might not have been the candidate for change when DeBord left, but with new leadership and a new cast of characters on offense, change is coming to Tennessee.