David Johnson confirmed to VolQuest on Saturday that he’s stepping down as the Tennessee Vols’ running backs coach to take the same position with the Florida State Seminoles.
Johnson explained that his decision was rooted in a desire to put his son “in the best position”, while adding that FSU would be closer to home for his wife (who is from Ironton, LA, just outside of New Orleans).
With Johnson on the move, it means Jeremy Pruitt has a staff opening to fill. Here are eight ways Pruitt could choose to replace Johnson.
1. Hire Jay Graham (Current Texas A&M RBs coach)
This is the most obvious possibility and it’s the one I mentioned as soon as the news broke that Johnson might be heading to Florida State. Graham played at Tennessee and he coached for the Vols in 2012 under Derek Dooley. In 2013, Graham left for Florida State (kind of ironic in retrospect) after Butch Jones was hired as UT’s head coach. Graham and Pruitt coached together at Florida State in 2013. Graham followed Jimbo Fisher from Florida State to Texas A&M in late 2017. Pruitt was reportedly interested in bringing Graham back to Tennessee last year, but it just never worked out. Graham would give Tennessee a strong recruiting presence in North Carolina (which is crucial for the Vols). And he’s obviously a good position coach, otherwise Fisher wouldn’t have kept him on board for seven seasons.
Graham might seem like the obvious choice, but the obvious choice doesn’t always get hired.
2. Promote Joe Osovet (Director of programming for football)
This probably wouldn’t be a popular choice with fans, but it might not be a bad idea. Osovet has been widely praised for his progressive football acumen. And he’s clearly valued by Pruitt. Osovet is eventually going to get an offer for an on-the-field role from a Power-5 program. Remember, Brian Niedermeyer was a virtual unknown when Pruitt brought him to Tennessee to coach tight ends. Now he’s the Vols’ best recruiter. If Pruitt promotes Osovet, it’s because he believes he can help take Tennessee to the next level.
3. Move Brian Niedermeyer to running backs
Speaking of Niedermeyer, Pruitt has mentioned before that he’s capable of coaching running backs (or anywhere on the offensive or defensive side of the ball).
Jeremy Pruitt on new #Vols assistant Brian Niedermeyer: He really could go coach anywhere on the offense or defense.
— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) January 10, 2018
If Niedermeyer moved to running backs, it would give Pruitt some flexibility to bring in a new tight ends coach if he wished.
4. Move Chris Weinke back to running backs and hire a QB coach
It’s no secret that I haven’t been enamored with the job that Chris Weinke has done as Tennessee’s quarterbacks coach. I didn’t really see any improvement from UT’s quarterbacks as the 2019 season progressed. And that’s not a surprise. Hall of fame running back Eric Dickerson blasted Weinke in 2016 for the job he did (or didn’t do) with the Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks.
Weinke previously coached running backs in 2018 for the Vols. Pruitt could move him back to running backs and hire a new quarterbacks coach. Maybe his old college roommate Freddie Kitchens, who was just fired as the Cleveland Browns head coach, would like to take a year or two and reset in Knoxville. Kitchens did a tremendous job as Cleveland’s interim offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach in 2018, he just wasn’t head coach material.
Another option would be to move offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to quarterbacks, which would free up Pruitt to hire another assistant on the defensive side of the ball if he wished.
5. Hire Joe Pannunzio
Pannuzio coached running backs at Alabama in 2018. He coached tight ends in in Tuscaloosa in 2017, which means his time at the school overlapped with Pruitt’s (he was also the director of football operations for Alabama from 2011-14, Pruitt was at Alabama in 2011 and 2012). Pannunzio is currently working in an off-field role with the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s a former college head coach at Murray State and he also spent time as a position coach at Auburn, Miami and Ole Miss.
6. Hire Bryan McClendon (current South Carolina WRs coach)
This would be a home run hire. McClendon is an excellent recruiter and knows the SEC extremely well. McClendon coached running backs at Georgia from 2009-2014. He also coached wide receivers for the Bulldogs in 2015 (he coached alongside Pruitt for two seasons in Athens). In 2016, McClendon was hired by South Carolina. He was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2019, but he was recently demoted from the position. I’m sure he’d like a fresh start elsewhere in the SEC. But that might be easier said than done. McClendon is making $1 million through 2020 at South Carolina. I doubt Tennessee is going to pay him that much to coach running backs. Maybe they’d give him a co-offensive coordinator title, but it’s hard to imagine him making more at UT than he’s currently making at South Carolina. Getting demoted isn’t fun, but when the pay doesn’t change it makes it hard to walk away.
7. Thomas Brown (current South Carolina RBs coach)
Ok so there’s more than five options. I couldn’t help myself.
Pruitt coached with Thomas Brown at Georgia in 2015. Brown, who played at Georgia, has also coached at Wisconsin and Miami (where he was also the offensive coordinator for three seasons under Mark Richt).
Brown just completed with first season at South Carolina.
8. Montario Hardesty (current UNC-Charlotte WRs coach)
Hardesty would likely be a popular choice with fans simply because he played at Tennessee under Phillip Fulmer and Lane Kiffin.
After spending four seasons in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns, Hardesty got into coaching. The North Carolina native spent the 2014 season as an intern at Chowan University. He then spent time at Norfolk State and Florida Atlantic (under Kiffin). Hardesty was on Pruitt’s staff in 2018 as a quality control coach, before landing an on-the-field role at Charlotte.
9. Des Kitchings (former NC State co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach)
Kitchings is probably a serious name to watch, due mostly to his availability. Kitchings was recently fired from NC State after spending seven seasons in Raleigh. The 2019 season was his first with an offensive coordinator title. Prior to his time at NC State, Kitchings spent time at Air Force and Vanderbilt (where he worked as the Commodores’ offensive coordinator in 2010).
Featured image via Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports