The long-awaited start of the 2018 football season for the Tennessee Volunteers is mere days away at this point. Vol fans have been waiting for the start of this season with more anticipation than even in seasons past. The reasons for the additional excitement are manifold, but an opportunity to get the taste of a dismal 4-8 season out of the mouth of the fanbase is a contributing factor. The offseason that followed, one that to a point was even worse than the football season, is also a reason Vol fans are ready to get back to the action on the field. Finally, Big Orange Nation is excited to see the debut of their new Head Coach, Jeremy Pruitt. After all the frustrations and embarrassments of the off season, Tennessee wound up hiring the former Alabama Defensive Coordinator, and brought respectability and optimism to a program that sorely needed both.
The hiring of Pruitt has been lauded by current players, former Vol stars, and the national coaching community. The expectations from Volunteer fans are clear. They want a team that they can be proud of, one that is successful on the field, and one that competes for and wins championships. This proud fanbase is never going to be satisfied with anything less in the long term. They expect a team to improve as the individual players are developed by the staff, and to put players proud of their time in Tennessee Orange into the NFL. The expectations of the fans have perhaps never been heard more clearly than they were in Knoxville during this off season. However, what are the expectations of these new coaches for their team and themselves? What is it that Jeremy Pruitt expects not just of his players, but of his program, his staff, and even himself?
On Field Expectations
Jeremy Pruitt has been perfectly clear about what he expects from his team in terms of wins and losses. There is only one record that is going to satisfy Coach Pruitt: 15-0 and National Champions. That’s it. It seems that is going to be some distance off for the Vols, but Jeremy Pruitt has made it clear that is his stated goal and expectation for the 2018 season to be satisfied. Pruitt is a smart coach, and he knows that the Vols are not ready to compete at that level yet, but he refuses to lower his target or expectations for any reason. Jeremy Pruitt took the job in Knoxville to win games and championships. History tends to remember coaches that demand excellence and success quite well, and those are two things that are central to what makes Jeremy Pruitt who he is. A record of 7-5 or 8-4 would be great seasons for these Vols by the standards of fans, media, and anyone that could observe this team, and though Jeremy Pruitt may enjoy his team taking such large steps forward, he will remain unsatisfied, as those results would fall short of the goal. To use an old adage, as a Vol fan, if that doesn’t light your fire, then your wood’s wet.
The whole of the coaching staff that Jeremy Pruitt and new Athletic Director and Volunteer Legend Phillip Fulmer assembled sent a clear message to a Tennessee fanbase that has endured a brutal decade in football. The Vols are taking football seriously again, and they are ready to get back to winning. They are prepared to spend the money to ensure it happens as well. Pruitt has assembled one of the most decorated and highly respected coaching staffs in all of America. Make no mistake, these coaches are overwhelmingly considered among the best in the country at what they do.
Pruitt and Fulmer went out and brought in coaches that, for the most part, had several things in common. It appears that to coach under Pruitt, you need to be established in player development, with players that blossomed to reach the NFL under your tutelage. Player development has been a focus among these hires, whether it is Former Vol All American Defensive Back and Kick Returner and NFL First Round Pick and Pro Bowler Terry Fair coaching up the Corners, or Tracy Rocker having his Defensive Lineman repeat drills until their execution meets his exacting standards, these coaches are excellent teachers of their positions and are respected for it across the country.
Another core component of a Jeremy Pruitt assistant appears to be strong SEC ties and experience, or strong ties to the south at the very least. These Tennessee assistants have these ties, and lots of them, up and down the staff. Whether it was Chris Rumph coaching at Florida for years, Will Friend playing at Alabama and coaching at Georgia, or Chris Wienke playing for Florida State and then serving as the coach at the Florida High School powerhouse IMG Academy, this staff is respected throughout the south for the time they have spent working there and the success they have had in various roles.
The last piece of the puzzle that Pruitt seems to be looking for is someone that is an excellent recruiter. Up and down the Tennessee staff are coaches that are recognized as some of the best recruiters in the nation. This shows that Pruitt understands the lifeblood of any college football program is the recruiting, and he is committed to be the best at that as well. Not only are the coaches Pruitt has surrounded himself with excellent at bringing recruits into a program, they are also widely respected for having an eye for talent. Like Pruitt himself, this staff is made up of coaches noted for their excellence with X’s and O’s, finding talent where others may miss it, and determining which prospects fit the schemes they are running. These three pillars of what Pruitt has sought out in his assistants seem to show what Pruitt’s vision for his Vols will shape into.
X’s and O’s
Jeremy Pruitt is a coach’s coach. Every time he is doing a press conference, you can’t help but feel that he would rather be in his office, breaking down film, or putting his corners through drills on how to properly jam a tall receiver at the line. The man eats, sleeps, and breathes football, and loves the strategy and tactics of the game. This attitude has been sorely lacking at Tennessee for far too long, and the focus slipping from excellence in execution on the field to gimmicks, programs, and slogans has left the program in the state it is currently in. Expect this to change drastically under Pruitt, who has emphasized changing the culture in Knoxville during multiple interviews this off season. Jeremy Pruitt is bringing an old school mentality in how he builds his team, what he expects of them, and how he intends to have them play on Saturdays.
Pruitt is one of the best defensive minds in all of college football. He recently announced that he will be calling his own defense this year. Working with Defensive Coordinator Kevin Sherrer, the Vols will have a pair of defensive gurus scheming to shut down opposing offenses each week. Tennessee has some extremely talented players on their defense. Some have been hampered by injury, some by poor coaching, others by poor fit. Expect to see these players utilized to their fullest under Pruitt and Sherrer in their multiple, base three four defense. Versatile players are a hallmark of a Pruitt defense, so expect to see players like Nigel Warrior, Todd Kelly Jr., Darrin Kirkland Jr., Darrel Taylor, and Shawn Shamburger shine as Pruitt and Sherrer work to utilize the chess pieces they have in place on defense. Eventually Pruitt will want to hang his hat on his defensive backs and pass rushers. The Safety duo of Warrior and Kelly may be the best pair to watch to see what could be in time under Pruitt.
On offense, Jeremy Pruitt appears to be giving the reigns to his Offensive Coordinator Tyson Helton. Helton was previously the Co-Offensive Coordinator for the USC Trojans, where he helped develop Sam Darnold and send the Trojans to a thrilling Rose Bowl win over Penn State. Before that, Helton spent time working under Jeff Brohm, currently the coach at Purdue, but then the Head Coach at Western Kentucky. Under Brohm and Helton, the Hilltoppers had one of the most statistically successful offenses in college football. Helton arrives with a solid pedigree, experience calling plays at a major program, and excellent player development to his credit. As a play caller, expect to see Helton’s offense mix with some of what Pruitt wants out of his team a whole. This offense should be physical, running the ball downhill, out of the I Formation, and attempting to impose their will on opponents. This physical, bullying running game compliments the aggressive, physical defense Pruitt wants to field, and should also open things up for Helton to use his big, talented receivers on long, play action pass plays down the field. The Vols under Helton will be run first on offense, but when they throw, they will be looking to hit big plays. Pruitt and Helton want a balanced attack for Tennessee, and they appear to have the personnel in place to achieve just that.
Jeremy Pruitt is one of the best and most decorated recruiters in all of college football. He surrounded himself with coaches similarly decorated and respected in that field. However, now Pruitt is the one deciding who his team, the Vols, will be recruiting. Pruitt must answer what a Tennessee Volunteer should look like to him. After seeing what he targeted as he attempted to salvage the 2018 recruiting class, as well as what he is after in the 2019 class, there is one thing that it is clear Jeremy Pruitt wants his Tennessee Volunteers to be. He wants them to be big. Really big. Huge. And to have that size all over the field. Pruitt is recruiting offensive and defensive lineman that would look comfortable wrestling with tyrannosaurs, but he also wants tall corners that can press, running backs that look like they could play linebacker, and big, physical receivers. Size and Physicality are the words that keep coming up when reviewing the classes Pruitt has had his hands on, and they figure to be some of the biggest differences for these Vols on the field in 2018.
Of course, all of these to a point are still speculations. Some are based on fact, some are based on observation, and some on what history tells, however until the Vols take the field against the Mountaineers on Saturday, there is no example of a Jeremy Pruitt Tennessee team to put on tape. The expectations that Jeremy Pruitt has for his team are clear, and Vol Nation is excited to see just how he intends to go about building them to that lofty goal. One more reason that Saturday can’t come fast enough.