Tennessee Football: Pruitt’s Early Success Will Be Determined By Diamonds

Every first-year regime is going to experience a recruiting kick from prospects enamored with the “newness” around the program. Jeremy Pruitt nabbing 4-stars J.J. Peterson, Jerome Carvin and Jeremy Banks were prime examples of this.

Say what you want about Pruitt’s early recruiting victories — they mean very little. Every first-year head coach gets a few of those guys. Pruitt will get his fair share of elite recruits as the years roll on as long as the Vols show marked improvement on the field. The long-time assistant has long been known as a dynamic recruiter and relationship-cultivator, and that isn’t going to change.

It’s the lesser-known prospects — especially in these first couple of recruiting cycles — who will tell us a lot about Pruitt’s abilities to recruit, coach and develop.

It was the other way around for Butch Jones. He did fine recruiting and even molding many low-level recruits into serviceable SEC players. But “serviceable” doesn’t win big in an elite conference. Where Jones and his coaches struggled was taking big-time recruits and developing them into big-time SEC players. Those guys simply never got better during Jones’ tenure. The staff wasn’t good enough, the strength & conditioning program failed them, and Jones never truly had enough faith in his players to allow them to make plays with the game on the line; he was too conservative and played too much “by the book” rather than by feel.

Pruitt may wind up like that, but it would be a major change. He’s never done that as an assistant, and there are no signs (as there was on Jones’ resume) that he’ll do it in Knoxville.

So, it’s important that we look at some of the “reaches” that Pruitt takes and how they mature and develop. Are they really reaches, or are Pruitt and his assistants just exceptional evaluators? Are they getting key-fit kids who have the developmental bodies to slide into important roles within the framework of the defensive or offensive schemes? Or are they just warm bodies to fill gaps in the class?

We can’t know the answer to that yet, but we will soon enough. If it’s the former, that’s an exciting thing for Tennessee fans that Pruitt knows what he wants — stars-be-damned — and goes out and gets them. Also, even if he isn’t getting his first or second choices at a position, it’s important for any coach to get kids who fit that role and turn them into playmakers.

That will be the difference in how long it takes Tennessee to get back under Pruitt.

It’s going to be very interesting to see how lightly recruited defensive linemen Kingston Harris and Kurott Garland fit. These guys should give us an idea of how Pruitt and his staff evaluates and develops.

Harris is a 6’3″, 285-pound defensive tackle from famed IMG Academy. That means that basically everybody in the nation saw him play when they were evaluating other prospects, yet didn’t offer. 247Sports thought there were 1,210 players better than him in the cycle. Is Harris a recruiting oversight? Or do Pruitt and Co. see something in him they believe they can shape into an SEC stud? The same, really, goes for Garland, who had offers from Tulane, Coastal Carolina and Eastern Kentucky. The Vols saw him when they were also scouting teammate and Florida State (former UT) receiver commit Jordan Young, and they wound up taking him on National Signing Day.

Young was overlooked, and it’s possible Garland was, too. It’s also possible these kids are major reaches. That’s not a knock on those guys; but the SEC is the best of the best. Maybe these guys are future stars, multi-year starters and important pieces to the rebuild.

Maybe they aren’t.

They’re worth watching if we’re going to see just how good this staff Pruitt put together is. To a lesser degree, John Mincey is a mid-level SEC recruit from Homerville, Georgia, who was recruited by Arkansas and South Carolina. The Vols were thrilled to get him on National Signing Day, but he is far from an elite recruit. Can the coaches turn him into a guy we’ll look back on and call a steal?

This is three defensive linemen — Harris, Garland and Mincey — who could be high-upside players. They have big bodies, projectable frames and attributes this staff believe translate into a 3-4 defense. Some of the guys committed to the prior regime (such as ultimate FSU commit Jamarcus Chatman) were not considered fits. Even though they had a higher ranking, they weren’t the type of players this staff believed it needed. It’s OK to be skeptical, but it’s not like Jones ever had a good idea of what it took to build an SEC winner, so I have no issues with going in a different direction.

The same can be said on the offensive side of the ball, too. Could Tennessee ultimately hang onto former quarterback commitment Adrian Martinez had Pruitt and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton put on the full-court press when Nebraska and Scott Frost came calling? The Vols fought there to keep Martinez in the fold, but how hard? Nobody seemed overly disappointed when he went to the Cornhuskers, and after a strong spring game, it looks like he could be a true freshman starter in the Big Ten. The same goes for dual-threat quarterback and former UT commitment Michael Penix, who this new staff did not want. He signed with Indiana and has a legit chance to start as a true freshman for former UT offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and the Hoosiers in ’18.

Instead, Helton and Pruitt zeroed in on California commitment JT Shrout. It didn’t take long for the pocket passer to visit Knoxville and flip from his home-state Bears to the Vols. This is a kid who threw a ridiculous number of interceptions in high school and was a 3-star prospect. On paper, he doesn’t blow anybody away. But this is what Helton wanted — a piece he believes he can mold into a legitimate dropback SEC passer. The Vols are transitioning away from a dual-threat-oriented, spread offense into a more pro-style scheme, and Shrout definitely fits that.

How will Shrout develop? Will he make us forget Martinez and Penix?

Las Vegas receiver Cedric Tillman is another player like Harris. He played at a national powerhouse in Bishop Gorman, and he had teammates with high-FBS caliber offers, but he wasn’t one of those guys. UT saw his size (6’3″, 205 pounds) and his ball-catching ability and offered him.

So that’s Harris and Garland and Mincey and Shrout and Tillman. I’m not saying these five guys will make or break Pruitt’s tenure at Tennessee — that’s just silly. But they are proverbial “diamonds in the rough” that are, at least at first blush, developmental prospects. What do you do with developmental prospects? You DEVELOP them. They either turn into stars, or they take up a scholarship spot and are urged to transfer at a later date. Maybe Pruitt will recruit over them, and maybe they’ll become cornerstones for a foundation of success.

Watch them; maybe not in 2018, but throughout their careers. They may tell us a lot about Pruitt and his staff.

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