KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Chris Weinke was hired by Tennessee football in December, and then he wasn’t, and for a while no one knew exactly what was going on.
Vols first-year football coach Jeremy Pruitt has come a long way since then, polishing off a top-20 recruiting class that has recently been sprinkled with impact graduate transfers such as quarterback Keller Chryst and tailback Madre London.
But in December, when Pruitt was still splitting his brain to coordinate the defense for eventual national champion Alabama, the Weinke hire was in flux.
Pruitt told the Tennessee football media recently that was because he wasn’t sure how he was going to break down the staff, in terms of number of assistants on offense versus defense.
“I think it’s going to be good for our guys to have a guy like Chris,” Pruitt said. “He has been there and done that and done it at the highest level.”
Weinke worked as an offensive analyst at Alabama last season, the odd twist here being that it appears former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones will replace him.
Weinke’s resume is quite impressive, from his days as the high school hockey team captain to a six-year minor league baseball career that brought him through Knoxville.
Most know Weinke for his 1999 national championship and 2000 Heisman Trophy seasons at Florida State and rookie season with the Carolina Panthers.
Weinke’s title at Tennessee is “running backs coach,” but Pruitt said people don’t need to get too hung up on that.
“To me, a guy that’s a football coach is a football coach,” Pruitt said. “I think a running back has to look at the game through the eyes of a quarterback, (because) it starts with protection.”
Weinke doesn’t need to tell the running backs how or where to run, so much as coach up the ball protection and pass protection.
“You just make sure they know what time the bus will leave,” said Pruitt, who played with Alabama all-time great tailback Shaun Alexander.
The guess here is that Weinke will also assist offensive coordinator Ty Helton working with the Vols quarterbacks, as he worked with Cam Newton during the NFL lockout in 2011 and was the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams QB coach in 2015-16.
Chryst appears to have a distinct edge in the QB competition coming in from Stanford’s pro-style offense, but the running back battle is wide open.
London, from Michigan State, fits the mold of a big, reliable power runner that Tennessee coaches have said they are seeking.
But sophomore Ty Chandler has home run speed and hits the line as hard as any back in college football, sophomore Timmy Jordan impressed in limited work last season and incoming freshman Jeremy Banks has the look of a future star.
Weinke, while not being known as the most fleet afoot, set a Carolina Panthers record for most rushing TDs by a rookie quarterback (6) in 2001 and had 12 stolen bases for the Knoxville Smokies in 1994.
Weinke was the head coach at IMG Academy from 2010-14, and it’s probably unlikely that he will remain a position coach at Tennessee for more than a season or two.
But Pruitt, like Alabama coach Nick Saban, will hire the best available assistants every chance he gets, and Weinke will indeed bring an added dimension to the 2018 Tennessee coaching staff.
About Tennessee football RB coach Chris Weinke
- Originally from St. Paul, Minn.
- Drafted in second round of 1990 MLB Draft, 62nd overall.
- Six years in the Toronto Blue Jays organization as first baseman.
- 26 years old when he enrolled at Florida State, led team to 1999 national title.
- Oldest player to win the Heisman Trophy (28)
- Fourth-round pick (No. 106 overall) of the Carolina Panthers in the 2001 NFL Draft.
- Was 1-15 as starter his rookie year.
- Played his final NFL season (2007) with San Francisco 49ers, started the final game, a 20-7 loss to Cleveland Browns, and didn’t return to the team.