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VOL. 42 | NO. 33 | Friday, August 17, 2018

Expectations low for Pruitt’s first season

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Tennessee fans can’t be blamed for having the sports version of post-traumatic stress disorder when it comes to their football program.

From car salesman-like press conferences to mattress-torching exits to embarrassing coaching searches, they’ve been burned too many times after promises of new beginnings.

That’s why the dawning of the Jeremy Pruitt era at Tennessee this season is met with guarded optimism.

The Vols want to believe their new head coach has the ability to lead them back to sustained national relevance. They just need more time to overcome their trust issues.

In his first few months on the job, Pruitt has represented a complete 180 from predecessor Butch Jones. The former Alabama defensive coordinator has put more emphasis on building fundamentals than creating catchphrases and has restricted the media’s access to the program.

As he takes control of rebuilding the Vols, Pruitt wants to control the message.

Pruitt’s success in his inaugural season will be judged by more than wins because the Vols will have to navigate a tough schedule with limited star power. The program’s progress should be judged by more subtle things like player development, game day proficiency and competitive spirit.

“My expectation for Tennessee is not very high this year just based on the roster. When you look at the level of talent top to bottom, Tennessee’s roster is just not going to be competitive week in and week out,” says Cole Cubelic, SEC Network analyst.

“They are very limited in the amount of SEC guys they have right now, so for me to sit here and expect them to vastly improve or win eight or nine games will be difficult because of that roster.”

The Vols bottomed out in the SEC last year. Ranked in the Top 25 to start the season, Tennessee finished 4-8 overall and failed to win an SEC game for the first time in program history, going 0-8.

After a circus of a coaching search that made national headlines for its ineptitude, new athletic director Phillip Fulmer took control and hired Pruitt to calm the storm.

Pruitt’s no-nonsense approach has provided a stark change and fresh start for the UT players. Rather than dwelling on last year’s historic low, they’re working toward a brighter future under Pruitt.

“The past is the past,” Vols linebacker Daniel Bituli says. “I feel like every guy on this team has really embraced a new staff, a new scheme. We’re just excited for this season.”

A coach’s son raised in Rainsville, Alabama, Pruitt has worked his way up the coaching ranks with an “all ball” philosophy.

He began wearing a football uniform around the house at age 3 and grew up in a fieldhouse watching his father’s staff create game plans.

After his college football career ended, Pruitt became a P.E. teacher at Wills Valley Elementary School in Fort Payne, Alabama. Between organizing kickball and dodgeball games for his students, Pruitt was always thinking about ways to out scheme opponents in football.

“Jeremy is a ball coach. That is the bottom line, and that is why I think him and coach Fulmer are so much alike,” explains Pruitt’s father, Dale. “They are just ball coaches, and if you are a ball coach you can coach the offensive line, the secondary or whatever. Because if you are going to be very good, you have to learn all of it.”

Pruitt came to Tennessee with a pedigree of success. He’s been a part of five national championships staffs at Alabama and Florida State. He was hired by Fulmer just a few weeks before helping Alabama capture its fifth national title in the last nine years.

“I think Jeremy’s very capable,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said last month at SEC Media Days. “He’s one of the best coaches we’ve had on our staff, and I think he’ll do extremely well (at Tennessee).”

Pruitt helped Florida State win a national title in 2013 under Jimbo Fisher, who is also entering his first year as an SEC head coach this season at Texas A&M.

“He did a great job of being very multiple in the looks he has and has a great knowledge of the game,” Fisher adds. “As I said, he could have been a head coach a long time ago. He has bided his time and got the right job. I think he’ll be a great opponent.”

Pruitt and his staff spent the spring and summer assessing the talent on the roster and determining roles.

Finding a quarterback is priority No. 1, with Jarrett Guarantano, Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst, Will McBride and true freshman JT Shrout competing for reps. The starting job is expected to come down to Guarantano or Chryst.

They all breathed a sigh of relief in learning Trey Smith –Tennessee’s biggest protector and best player – is expected back on the field.

The sophomore offensive lineman missed all of spring while being treated for blood clots in his lungs. Smith has been on blood thinners and will be cleared for contact once it’s deemed safe by doctors.

“If healthy, and he has been able to train the way he needs to train, he is the best offensive lineman returning in college football, and honestly I don’t think it is close,” says Cubelic, a former Auburn offensive lineman. “To be as big as he is and to be able to move the way he does with his flexibility and understanding of the position at his age is uncanny.

“I haven’t seen many guys like him at his age.”

There is no easing into the job for first-year head coaches in the SEC, but Pruitt will be tested more than most.

The Vols kick off the season against West Virginia on September 1 in Charlotte, North Carolina. They open SEC play with Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Alabama and South Carolina in a five-game stretch broken up only by an open week before Auburn.

“Tennessee has the most difficult five-week stretch in college football in the middle of their season. You look at Sept. 22 through Oct. 27, that month is just insane,” Cubelic points out. “No college football team outside of Alabama, Clemson or Ohio State could withstand that without a loss, and I’m not sure those teams could even run that gauntlet.”

Even with the rugged schedule, Phil Steele says Tennessee has a good chance to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“I think they are going to flirt with a bowl, which is a lot better than last year when they were getting blown out on a weekly basis,” adds Steele, whose annual preseason magazine, “Phil Steele’s 2018 College Football Preview,’’ is regarded as the industry standard in college football.

“Tennessee had a lot of injuries during the course of the season that hurt them last year. It is going to take a little bit of time offensively, but I love how the month of November sets up for them with four winnable games. If they can get through that, they are going to a bowl. And let’s face it, Volunteer fans would be very happy this year if Tennessee gets to a bowl.”

Regardless of this year’s results, Cubelic says he believes Pruitt will guide the Vols back to respectability in the near future because of his football acumen, recruiting ability and the staff he’s hired.

Perhaps the most promising sign of a culture change to Cubelic is how quiet it’s been around UT since Pruitt took over.

“I like what we haven’t heard based on what we have heard the last four years. The ‘Team 121,’ ‘Brick by Brick,’ ‘Champions of Life’ and having more heart than anyone – those are the stupid slogans you don’t hear any more out of Knoxville,” Cubelic says.

“I think Jeremy is basically saying there is not going to be any false hope pumped into these kids. All those falsehoods that had been forced onto these kids has been stripped away and they are going back to the fundamentals to just be good at what you are asked to do.”

Although Pruitt’s legacy at UT won’t be judged by this season, it will give fans the first glimpse of what he’s trying to build.

Can he translate his strong pedigree into success running his own program? Can his “all ball” personality produce enough wins to keep the Vol faithful content?

Only time will tell, but Pruitt is pleased with the initial buy in.

“I really like the guys on our team,” he says.

“They’re fun to be around. They’re willing to do whatever we ask. They’re hungry. They have not questioned anything we’ve asked them to do. They’ve just done it.

“As long as they continue to do that, we’ll be OK.”

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