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“He’ll find a way to get it done.” Former Vol Jerod Mayo to follow legend as NFL head coach

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After Tennessee was clobbered by California in the 2007 season opener, Jerod Mayo was despondent.

Tennessee’s star junior linebacker didn’t feel like he’d played well or provided the proper leadership or made his teammates better. He felt like he had let the Vols down.

Kevin Simon, a former star linebacker at Tennessee, was serving as a UT graduate assistant at the time. Mayo sought Simon for advice.

“We did some additional film study and all it took was two weeks to correct his footwork and not taking false steps,” Simon recalled this week.

 “Not everybody is willing to ask for help. He was willing to (pursue) whatever resource was necessary to be great.”

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That not only served Mayo well as Tennessee’s linebacker, but it served him well as an All-Pro linebacker for the New England Patriots. And his thirst for knowledge and perfection has led him to become the first former Vol player to be named a head coach in the NFL.

Thirst for knowledge

Former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis remembers recruiting Mayo out of Hampton, Va.

Secondary coach Larry Slade was the lead recruiter, but Chavis didn’t want to sign a linebacker without making a home visit.

“He was really probably one of the best young men I’ve ever been around,” Chavis said this week. “He was trustworthy, honest, and so smart. He was a great young man. And he had a military background.

“Everybody asked me, `Why is he who he is?’ Because of his upbringing. His family taught him well.”

Chavis said Mayo was one of the smartest players he’s ever coached.

“I never had to yell at him,” Chavis said. “I never had to get on him. I’d tell him what I wanted, demonstrated it, and he did it. It was amazing how he understood the game.”

That football IQ is one reason the Patriots made Mayo the first linebacker the franchise ever drafted in the first round, taking him with the No. 10 overall pick – much higher than many mock drafts projected.

“The attraction for New England was how smart he was,” Simon said. “New England was known for drafting (college) captains, high character guys, and Mayo fits all that criteria in spades.”

After making Defensive Rookie of the Year, All-Pro and leading the NFL with 175 tackles in 2010, Mayo’s eight-year career was cut short by injuries, finishing his last three seasons on Injured Reserve.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who rarely hired former players, was so impressed by Mayo’s dedication  and intelligence, he added Mayo to the Pats staff in 2019.

“That tells you all you need to know about how smart he is and his capabilities,” Simon said.

Strive for perfection

While Mayo was a top-ranked linebacker in high school, he was also a standout running back. He rushed for 1,245 yards and 13 touchdowns in just seven games as a senior.

Slade wondered if he should share Mayo’s run-game tape with the rest of the Tennessee staff.

Chavis held up a stop sign.

“I told him, `Don’t show (the offensive staff) running back film,’” Chavis recalled. “They’ve got enough players over there. That guy is a linebacker. If they (offensive coaches) thought he could play offense, you’d have to fight your butt off to keep him (on defense).”

Mayo blossomed at Tennessee as a redshirt junior, recording 140 tackles and making first-team All-SEC and second-team All-American.

Simon remembered a seven-game stretch in which Mayo averaged about 15 tackles per game.

“In my opinion, he had a seven-game stretch that was unrivaled by any Tennessee linebacker going back to 1994,” Simon said. “Honestly, I don’t think anybody played better than him.

“When you look at his production on the field, he’s as good as any linebacker that’s ever played at Tennessee, period.”

Mayo was a terrific leader, Chavis said, but a different kind of leader than Al Wilson. Wilson was an in-your-face, chew-you-out, intimidating leader.

Mayo’s approach was different.

“Jerod was as good a leader as Al Wilson, but in his own way, absolutely, Chavis said. “He was a quiet leader. He wasn’t going to stand in front of the room and get after their ass. He led by the way he did things.”

Chavis said he had other linebackers come to him to ask what they needed to do to improve. Chavis would send them to Mayo.

“Those kids would come back and say, `I’m going to be better because of him,’” Chavis said.

Simon called Mayo “kind of a silent assassin. He didn’t say much unless he felt he needed to. When he spoke in the locker room, everyone listened.”

Following a legend

Few coaches at any level succeed when following a legend.

Belichick is considered the greatest coach in NFL history with a record six Super Bowl wins.

But without quarterback Tom Brady, New England and Belichick missed the playoffs three of four seasons and just went 4-13, leading to a coaching change.

Can Mayo restore New England to playoff status on a consistent basis?

“He’ll find a way to get it done,” Chavis said. “He’s been taught in that organization how disciplined they are. He’ll find a way to get it done.

“He can be firm when he has to be firm. He’ll get those kids to fall in love with him. They will follow him.”

Simon is also optimistic.

“I don’t have any doubt he’ll be successful,” Simon said.

Simon said New England needs to find the right general manager and the right quarterback, and Mayo needs to put together the right staff.

“Those are the biggest things that need to happen,” Simon said.

Simon knew before most anyone that Mayo would succeed Belichick. Last year, Mayo shared with Simon that Patriots owner Robert Kraft put a clause in Mayo’s contract that he would replace Belichick.

Simon is confident Mayo won’t try to be a Belichick clone.

“Jerod has always authentically been himself,” Simon said. “He never tried to be anything but himself.”

And Simon thinks that will be good enough to get the Pats back on track.

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