Rebuilding Tennessee football won’t happen overnight
Jeremy Pruitt, the new head football coach at the University of Tennessee, has his work cut out for him. While it’s true that Butch Jones recruited well in his time at UT, the former Vols coach also leaves a roster full of question marks for his replacement. Jones never signed a class outside of the top 15 in Rivals’ annual rankings; however, he and his staff struggled to develop those top recruits.
Tennessee got virtually no positive contribution from this year’s freshman class. It’s unfair to expect freshmen to walk onto campus as finished products, but many a successful program every year produce freshmen who either already are ready to contribute or can’t be kept off the field because of their natural abilities. I can’t remember seeing a freshman class that contributed so little to a Southeastern Conference team as Tennessee’s did this year.
There’s also the issue of the 2015 class, which was ranked in the top five that year. The majority of those players have failed to live up to their billing. Only running backs Alvin Kamara and John Kelly have emerged as true talents. Micah Abernathy has played above his three-star label as a recruit, and defensive end Darrell Taylor finally showed this past season why he was classified as a four-star player coming out of high school. The other 27 players in the class either have been outright busts or have been plagued by injuries.
UT’s issues this year started on the line of scrimmage, and the 2015 class was responsible for a lot of the problems. Offensive linemen Chance Hall and Jack Jones began as promising players who since have had their careers derailed by injuries. The same can be said for defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and linebacker Darren Kirkland, Jr. Tackle Drew Richmond was the top offensive lineman in the nation according to many evaluators, but he has yet to be a serviceable starter for the Vols. Defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie was another five-star player who hasn’t lived up to the hype.
The rest of the class simply has failed to produce. If one or two of its top players were busts, it would be reasonable to believe that they were misevaluated by recruiting services. It’s statistically impossible, though, that 20 players highly sought after by the top programs in the nation simply can’t find their way onto the field because of a lack of ability.
Pruitt took over the program fewer than two weeks away from the beginning of the first early signing period in FBS history. No one knows what will happen during this period. Some coaches have been quoted as saying they expect about 25 percent of prospects to sign early. Others expect up to 75 percent of recruits to sign their letters of intent early.
Recruiting is a relationship game. Tennessee’s current staff is loaded with strong recruiters with proven track records in the South, but there may be too little time to build the types of relationships it takes to convince the nation’s top players to break their commitments to coaches who have been in contact with them for multiple years.
The cultural issue within the locker room may be the biggest hurdle for Pruitt. After the season ending loss to Vanderbilt that sealed the worst season in Tennessee football history, Jarrett Guarantano told the media about the team’s culture moving forward, “It’s just going to be different. We’re going to set the tone, and if nobody likes it, they can just leave. That’s how things are going to be.”
You don’t hear quarterbacks speak that way about their teams. You don’t hear young players announce to more experienced players that they’re taking over the culture within the locker room. Pruitt and his staff must mend those relationships.
So where does that leave Pruitt and his staff now?
Fortunately, the rebuild may not take quite as long as you might think. There are quality players on the roster; it’s just that many of them have developed bad habits and worse attitudes that must be amended. However, a strong nucleus of young talent – especially at the skill positions – still exists. Players like Guarantano, Tyler Byrd, Ty Chandler and Trey Smith must serve as the building blocks for the future of the program.
While the 2018 recruiting cycle likely will take a hit, Pruitt and his staff are skilled recruiters. In the long term, they will bring to UT the type of talent that can compete at a championship level.
Also, it is easier to win at Tennessee than you might think given the results of the last decade. Two years ago, Jones led a team decimated by injuries and running an antiquated offensive system to a nine-win season. Derek Dooley would have had success in his third year if not for a disastrous defensive coordinator hire in Sal Sunseri. If UT’s coaches can land the type of talent their predecessors did and simply get out of their own way, they should be able to have the Vols respectable again in short order. Pruitt has surrounded himself with a good-enough staff to do just that.
Turning Tennessee back into a power won’t be as simple as flipping a light switch, but it shouldn’t take as long as the last two rebuilds of the program have taken. Though fans have been asked to be patient with their team’s coaches far too often in recent years, they again will need to show resilience. This time, however, you should see an uptick by year two.