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With coin and keys, Tyson Helton ready to jumpstart Vols offense

Let’s go back to 1999.

Tyson Helton had just wrapped up his college career as backup quarterback for his father Kim at Houston and wasn’t sure what to do next. Partying wasn’t on the agenda.

Helton wanted to continue in his family’s football footsteps but he needed a job and his dad wasn’t going to hand him one.

So instead, he had Kim Helton dial up an old friend and ask Hawaii head coach June Jones, who Kim worked with for the Houston Oilers back in the late ‘80s, if he had an entry opening with the Rainbow Warriors.

“I didn’t blink,” Jones told VolQuest.

“I hired Tyson right there on the phone call.”

At age 23, Helton, who first met Jones as a ball boy for the Oilers years earlier, began his coaching career as a graduate assistant. He was assigned special teams, charged with charting, some game-planning and a lot grunt work.

Helton embraced his start. He was so diligent and detailed that Jones, who’d been an NFL quarterback, coordinator and head coach, decided you give his young virtuoso more responsibility.

Hawaii’s head coach quickly noticed an eagerness for more from Helton. Despite not coaching a specific position, Helton never skipped an offensive meeting in four years with the Warriors. He constantly peppered Jones with questions and had a thirst for why?

“He was my mentor,” Helton told VolQuest.

“He was a guy I could go talk to 1-on-1 and say, ‘Coach, why are we doing this? How does this work?’ Normally, you wouldn’t do that being a GA with a head coach. I was fortunate. I learned so much football from him. About the passing game and how to attack coverages. A lot of those influences I have (now) started way back then.”

Helton lasted just a single year as a GA before Jones promoted him to be Hawaii’s special teams coordinator at 24. In his first season as the coordinator, the Warriors led the nation in kickoff return yardage and Helton’s climb through the coaching ranks simply took off from there.

“That’s why I gave him the job,” Jones said.

“I saw it the very first year. He wanted to learn. He wrote everything down. He took good notes. I knew he was eventually going to do big (things). I was really happy with what he went on to do at Western Kentucky. I’m anxious to see Tennessee play this year. To see the influence of Tyson and how he’ll make his (mark).”

Everyone in Vol Nation is just as curious, but first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt is betting $1.2 million that Helton will leave quite the impression, starting today in Charlotte against No. 17 West Virginia.

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In December, Pruitt hired Helton as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator, making the 41-year-old coach among the highest paid assistants in college football. Helton’s salary is nearly twice what Larry Scott pulled in as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator last season.

We’ll find out if he can make the Vols’ poor production double this year, too.

While all eyes will be on Pruitt’s debut this afternoon, Helton’s inauguration and transition to a first-time solo coordinator is just as intriguing.

What will Tennessee’s offense actually look like in 2018?

While the Vols teased their offensive blueprint under Helton in the spring game, the full playbook and scheme will be unleashed against the Mountaineers today. The Vols are expected to run a variation of Southern Cal’s “Smash and Gun” scheme, also mixing in concepts from Colorado State, Georgia, Western Kentucky and others dating all the way back to his tutelage under Jones.

“Everybody steals from everybody,” Jones said.

“Tyson has kept building, tweaking his own thoughts, his own concepts on a lot of what we were doing at Hawaii. He’s built a high-in offensive package that he’s used and tweaked at three different schools, so I don’t expect anything different at Tennessee.”

Added Helton, “Ball is ball. It all goes in circles.”

Tennessee’s new pro-style look will have plenty of two-tight end and two-tailback formations, but the Vols will also utilize three and four receiver sets out of the ‘gun and mix in perimeter RPOs. The offense will have plenty of deception and window dressing, but the foundation of its multiplicity will be running the football. Still, while Jones’ run-and-shoot isn’t coming to Rocky Top, Helton is adamant that the Vols are going to push the ball vertically.

Tennessee had an anemic passing attack in 2017, but there’s confidence that an improved receiving unit coupled with Jarrett Guarantano’s growth will lead to more explosive plays.

“Your offense is based upon the talent of your players, what they do best,” Helton said. “That’s what you build your offense around. … It’s not the play. It’s the players.”

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With influences from Jones, Jeff Brohm and Clay Helton, as well as working alongside Will Friend and Joe Osovet, preparation, X’s and O’s and play design shouldn’t be an issue for Helton in his first year as a Power 5 coordinator. His track record of developing quarterbacks — from Joe Webb at UAB to the record-setting Brandon Doughty at Western Kentucky or new the starting quarterback for the New York Jets in Sam Darnold — should really accentuate Guarantano’s growth, too.

But Helton’s ultimate test will be his transition to an independent play-caller. We’ll soon see what Helton’s feel and rhythms is for a game.

For nearly a decade, Helton got his indoctrination as a play-caller under a unique arrangement.

Helton was initially eased into calling plays working with his dad at UAB, and then had an expanded role at both WKU and USC. Essentially, Helton would be up in the booth and offer his input with a play-call and then his dad or Brohm or later his older brother would take it or reject it. Helton has been a bit shy on details, but did say, “Jeff kind of slowly brought me up. It was more of a situational deal. ‘Hey Tyson, you’ve got 3rd downs.’ Then it became, ‘All right, Tyson. You’ve got some of the red zone.’ Or, ‘Hey, Tyson, I need a 1st down shot here.’

"It became a great dynamic, to be honest with you. He was on the field. I was in the booth, and we just kind of went back and forth. I always tried to stay a play ahead.” At USC, Helton’s role was even more complicated though, as he shared the duties with both his brother and former Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin.

But those confusing days are over.

While Friend, Osovet and Chris Weinke will have input, Helton is charged with reviving Tennessee’s moribund offense. That’s why Pruitt handed him all that coin.

It’s up to Helton to get the most out of a unit that ranked 120th nationally in yards per play in 2017. Helton certainly didn’t inherit a Maserati, but there’s enough horsepower on Tennessee’s roster to jumpstart the attack. Despite the challenge, the wunderkind offensive coordinator is confident he can make it happen, too.

“I understand what’s important,” Helton told VolQuest.

“What I learned the most from (Jones) is don’t worry about the small things. Everybody wants to worry about the small things, but really focus and worry about the big picture and what’s important to winning.”