Down and distance: The imminent dawn of Jeremy Pruitt’s Tennessee

photo by Rusty Odom

We are only a few short weeks away from the return of God‘s favorite game: FBS college football. With that arrival comes the widely anticipated beginning of a new chapter: the reign of Jeremy Pruitt as University of Tennessee head coach and the subsequent critique of his team’s on-field performances.

After a legendary, white-knuckle thrill ride of a coaching search, Tennessee lured the defensive coordinator – known for his aggressive, complex, high-scoring defensive game plans, elite recruiting and legit coaching résumé festooned with success – away from the University of Alabama. What that summary lacked, until now, was head-coaching experience. If his first-year Volunteers appear to be in disarray at any point during the upcoming season, that fact surely will rush to the front of the narrative. But any such outcome remains to be seen, of course.

BLANK was on hand in Atlanta last month for Southeastern Conference media days and to see Pruitt face the collective press corps for the first time as the leader of a program. Intrigue was high, as the former Alabama man is known to be a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact type of dude. Even as he casually yet successfully presented a professional public face in Hotlanta, analysts continued to question his fitness as a head coach – although much of that commentary can be bucketed as trolling. (Looking at you, Aaron Murray.) By all actual accounts, Pruitt seized immediate control of the UT football program upon arriving in Knoxville in December 2017 and now maintains a lock on all operations.

Some of the trolling is rooted in Pruitt’s style of zero-BS press conference etiquette. His cold realism is a dramatic shift from former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, who became more famous for his humiliating, nonstop slogans and Napoleonic demeanor than for his ability to make basic in-game decisions. While Jones went far out of his way to coddle UT fans, Pruitt made headlines by accepting no slack from a fan base that regularly touts itself as the most passionate in the country.

photo by Bill Foster

When fans left large swaths of Neyland Stadium empty during the spring game, Pruitt assumed the role of disciplinarian over Vol Nation. In spite of Tennessee drawing the fourth-highest attendance total for a spring game in the entire country, he spoke directly to absent fans, asking them where they were. While the approach ruffled the feathers of many, the first-year coach was correct to ask a passionate fan base that claims greatness why it wasn’t willing/able to fill the seats in full.

If Tennessee intends to reclaim a place at the table of elite programs, it has to have an organized front. Recruits see the empty seats and the resultant bickering on social media. And opponents definitely see the wounded fan base that has been regularly demoralized for a decade. Pruitt’s point: if we’re going to be elite, first everybody has to show up. He didn’t come to Tennessee to win a popularity contest; he came to win football games and, hopefully, championships. This approach is what has made Pruitt revered at every stop he’s made, and success has followed him, as well.

On Sunday, Aug. 5, fans and media got their first look at Pruitt and his staff of heralded coaches and recruiters in their natural element: teaching the game. While many on the staff are used to coaching slightly higher-profile recruits on a position-by-position basis, Tennessee is not the bare cupboard that it has been painted as by some analysts. Anyone modestly familiar with the program is aware that Tennessee’s issue was not ability – it was a deficiency in coaching coupled with a terminal insufficiency in strength and conditioning.

The longer that Pruitt has been with the program, the more you can hear his demeanor shift as he realizes he actually has some weapons at his disposal. Even with the talent on hand, though, none of the non-JUCO players on the field have ever been properly taught at the collegiate level – with the notable exception of the returning running backs, who were in the care of the consistently excellent former coach Robert Gillespie, now at North Carolina. At that first open practice, which took place at Neyland, you got the impression that many of the veteran Vols are getting their first dose of tough love.

Gone are the DJs, the “circle of life” alpha ritual, the microphones and the convoluted drills and rotation. What fans and reporters saw on Sunday was nonstop instruction, Pruitt’s signature intolerance for any kind of mental or physical hiccup from players or coaches and just a whole bunch of football. The Vols had a four-deep rotation in constant 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 situations. Pruitt and his staff are a pacing, intense and passionate set of teachers who do not waste words, did not mince words and who seem intent on changing Tennessee into a program that expects not only to win, but also to dominate in the course of doing so.

Regardless of media preseason expectations, Pruitt and company are inheriting a team that was more than talented enough in 2015 and 2016 to win the SEC East. Even in its darkest hour aka last year, UT still was only three plays away from being 7-5 and going to a fourth consecutive bowl game. Tennessee has talent and by their Sept. 1 clash with West Virginia should be at full-strength for the first time in recent memory. That health is thanks to the conditioning prowess of Craig Fitzgerald, and apparently players have finally learned how to practice without trying to slaughter one another.

While fans will have to wait to see how well all the pieces click together for Pruitt’s 2018 Volunteers, it’s hard to bet against a bunch of hungry, disrespected athletes and a coaching regime that not only knows what winning at an elite level requires, but that truly expects to win, as well. That might be the most critical change on Rocky Top. If the players and fans follow suit, Tennessee could be a problem for the other schools in the SEC East – and much sooner than anticipated.

Photo by Rusty Odom

Predicting the fUTure

There are plenty of things that can go wrong for Tennessee in 2018, just like there are plenty of things that could go very well for the young Volunteer squad. Here are our best guesses at what will happen this fall, a season that can be separated into three distinct groups: probably gonna lose, ought to win and swing games.

 

West Virginia: UT opens the year with a matchup against the much-ballyhooed transfer quarterback Will Grier and his top-notch group of wide receivers. I call this a swing game, and here is why: The loudness of the hype over Grier and his receiving corps has masked a terminally flawed Mountaineers team. WVU’s running offense is pedestrian, their special teams are mediocre and their 2017 defense was absolutely rotten. This is a game that comes down to Grier’s passing ability versus Pruitt‘s defense. West Virginia has no tape on anything Tennessee is going to throw at them on either side of the ball, they just enjoyed a summer of praise being heaped upon them and they face a hungry and disrespected group of Volunteers with a ton to prove. In a race to 50, WVU would be my pick, but until I have reason to doubt Pruitt and Defensive Coordinator Kevin Sherrer, I’m going to assume they know how to scheme against a one-trick offense. 1-0.

 

ETSU and UTEP: Not going to waste your time with these. There is some intrigue concerning the ETSU coaching staff and its history with UT, and UTEP has an interesting transfer quarterback, but Tennessee will have no trouble grinding up these two. 3-0.

 

Florida: The first truly impactful game of Pruitt‘s legacy at Tennessee. The Volunteers and Gators have been neck and neck over the last few years, and both are coming off dismal 4-7 seasons. The difference in 2018: There’s no reason this moment should be “too big” for these UT coaches. None of them have the emotional scars of being generationally dominated by Florida. I think that transfers into how they will prepare the team for this game. Florida has a suspect position in quarterback and seems to be limping into the Dan Mullen era. This will be their first road game, and Neyland should be hostile. The Gators almost lost to the worst team in Tennessee history last year. In Knoxville, with renewed confidence and better coaching, this is an easy pick. 4-0.

 

Georgia: Tennessee probably is going to lose to Georgia. Keep your emotions together, lads; this three-game stretch is not going to define your 2018 season. 4-1.

 

Auburn: This is the most-winnable game of the three near-certain losses for the Vols. Auburn is the team West Virginia thinks they are, and the Tennessee secondary will get tested regularly in this one. The first rumblings of “Fire Pruitt!” will doubtlessly hit #VolTwitter after this game. Do not feed the narrative, dear reader. 4-2.

 

Alabama: This game is going to be very weird for Pruitt. I believe he will beat Alabama while he is at Tennessee, but he will not do it this year. Finishing these three games in relatively good health is paramount. THAT is what will define 2018 for UT. 4-3.

 

South Carolina: This is the truest swing game of the 2018 season. If Tennessee escapes the previous three games with relatively good energy and no key injuries, I think the Vols steal this one. Unfortunately, I don’t think both of those qualifiers are guaranteed. 4-4.

 

Charlotte: Read, recovery and the new redshirt rule will be the stars of this game. Tennessee wins with minimal effort. 5-4.

 

Kentucky: The final trio of games will be one of the toughest tests of the Pruitt era. This game also is where the head coach’s message to Tennessee fans will ring the truest. Again, assuming the game is played in relatively good health, it could tip in UT’s favor in a hostile environment for its adversary. The Vols should have beaten Kentucky in 2017 and should hold the sting of that loss close to their hearts for this matchup in 2018. Just like Florida, the Volunteers are now under the guidance of a regime of coaches who not only expect to beat teams like Kentucky, but expect to dominate opponents of this caliber, as well. 6-4.

 

Missouri: Continuing to assume that Tennessee will be reasonably healthy at this point, I see Missouri as yet another one-trick offense relying heavily on the incredible arm of quarterback Drew Lock. (Unfortunately for Lock, though, his offensive coordinator is Derek Dooley.) Given the experience level of UT’s secondary, this game is a bit of a tossup. For the sake of realism, I think Tennessee drops this one in a nail-biter. 6-5.

 

Vanderbilt: The prevailing thought around the conference is that Vandy is returning to Earth after a few seasons playing waaaaay above their pay grade. Until life proves otherwise, I do not believe Tennessee will lose to Vanderbilt in the foreseeable future. 7-5.

 

In short

Obviously, a great deal of things can go wrong here, but I see no objective reason to expect less than the sunny side of six or seven wins. Could it be five? Yes, but it would take a bit of disaster for that to happen. Could it be eight? It is within the realm of possibility, but Tennessee would need to catch some serious breaks. The only near-certain thing about Tennessee this year is that it is unlikely to get grossly outcoached very often under Pruitt – a factor that could have turned the outcome of many games over the course of the last decade Tennessee’s way. We’ll see how this season pans out; we don’t have long to wait.

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