You’re a Tennessee fan, and you’re skeptical. The two things may as well be synonymous after what we’ve been through for the past decade-plus, especially after what our dysfunctional administration put us through this offseason.
New head football coach Jeremy Pruitt doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt yet, and, quite frankly, he probably doesn’t want it. Like everything else in his career, he realizes he has to earn it, too.
You shouldn’t give him the benefit of the doubt, either. You should be in wait-and-see mode.
After all, most of us talked ourselves into Derek Dooley and Butch Jones, even while the nation around us warned that they were reaches, at best. As the program burned all around us, we were like that meme, stuck in the middle of the room on fire, saying, “This is fine.”
This isn’t fine. 4-8 isn’t fine. Winless in the SEC isn’t fine. The roster being in such shambles that Pruitt and his coaching staff having to experiment with position changes galore just to find diamonds in a field of quartz isn’t fine.
But it’s what we have. It’s what Pruitt inherited, and nobody hears him complaining, even if you don’t hear him heaping praise, either. Instead — unlike the past two regimes — everybody in the nation is telling us to hold tight, because Pruitt and this great staff he assembled know what they’re doing, and they’ll get Tennessee back on the right track.
We’re not seeing a used-car salesman of the highest order in Knoxville anymore. Butch Barnum has left the circus tent.
There are covert practices taking place in Knoxville, mainly because Pruitt learned at the knee of Nick Saban, and we’re all starved because we know very little about what’s happening at practice, and our reporters are seeing very little to know what to report. Truth be told, there’s probably little to see. We all should know what Tennessee football is going to be in 2018, and it isn’t going to be a pretty picture. It’s going to take more than an offseason to wash the Butch Jones stink off the program.
But you can bet one thing: Pruitt is putting his fingerprints all over this program.
Is that a good thing? We certainly don’t know yet, but we know one thing for sure. It isn’t the same as Jones’ fingerprints. And we know that isn’t bad, don’t we?
The reports from spring practice are about what you’d expect. Gone is the blaring music at drills. It seems that the coaching staff is actually more interested in the players hearing what they have to say than listening to Lil’ Wayne (or whatever kids are listening to these days). There isn’t as much hype or hyperbole. Instead, it’s just straight talk, and not all of it is what we want to hear. But I think we all probably believe it’s the truth, because Pruitt isn’t the type of guy who’ll sugarcoat anything.
Players are talking little, and assistants are talking less. Pruitt is controlling the message and has mentioned to reporters he wants everything to be about getting better this spring and for players to be in full-on business mode. Maybe that gums up the conduit between the program and the public, but none of that matters if they wind up better than we think they’ll be, now does it?
Pruitt is not going to come out and say there are a lot of orange turds in the punch bowl, but you can tell by the way he’s shuffling and trying to find some more puzzle pieces that fit what he wants to do that this roster isn’t in the shape he wants it. This spring has the feel of, “Well, we’re going to do whatever it takes to get to six or seven wins.” Am I reading between the lines? Well, yeah. Aren’t we all?
I don’t think the “Pruitt way” is hoarding graduate transfers or hitting up JUCOs for players. I don’t think the “Pruitt way” is moving kids all over the field to try to find a place where they may play the best. And I don’t think the “Pruitt way” is stripping all the fun away from football.
I think the “Pruitt way” is winning. And I know he’s done it before at the highest level and believe he knows what it takes. I believe he sees the roster is in shambles, knows to recruit at the highest level he has to show marked progress on the field and is trying to piece together a team in ’18 that can compete, and I believe he’s trying to use some of what he has to get there and sprinkle in others he doesn’t have.
So if Alontae Taylor is better at cornerback (where he’s getting a look right now during practice and where Pruitt recruited him to play while at UA) or LaTrell Bumphus is better at defensive end than tight end — and both have a clearer path to help the Vols in 2018 at those positions — that’s where they’ll play. Both of them may go back to offense, but why not look?
It’s part of a pedigree of success, a pedigree of toughness and a pedigree of championships. Butch didn’t have it. Dooley didn’t have it. The biggest difference in those guys and Pruitt, is the new guy does.
“It was very exciting (when Tennessee hired Pruitt), just seeing all the national championships he’s won, and especially with the coaching staff he’s brought in,” senior defensive lineman Kyle Phillips told GoVols247’s Patrick Brown. “We have a great coaching staff here, and I’ll believe we’ll be successful for it.
“This coaching staff, they’re definitely being tough, especially after a bad season last year, they want us to get the most out of this upcoming season. They believe that we have the talent in the room to do it. And I think we can do it, if we buy in.”
What is the “most” out of the season? Six wins? Seven wins? Could Tennessee somehow get to eight? Few probably think the latter is in the question, but the coaches and players aren’t limiting themselves, and that’s what you want to hear. There’s a reason why it’s exciting that players like Quart’e Sapp, Will Ignont, Jarrett Guarantano and others are bigger and more athletic. There’s a reason to be excited about UT’s personnel fitting a 3-4 scheme better than a 4-3. There’s a reason to be excited about throwing the ball vertically more and having bigger running backs who can get tough yards between tackles.
We have to hope in the little things because the Jones era didn’t leave Pruitt anything big to inherit. We have to find solace in what left with the previous regime.
Gone is the unfolding rusty lawn chair offense of Jones that appeared allergic to vertical routes, tried to work East and West to run from defenders, and make 1st-and-goal from the 2 1st-and-goal from 8 by lining up in shotgun formations.
Maybe this team will play some real football on offense and some real football on defense. Maybe we’ve got a real football coach this time. As my good buddy Wes Rucker said, “Coach Pruitt is the kind of guy who’ll put a dip in and sit in the field house and just talk ball with a high school coach for a couple hours.”
All of us who played ball can appreciate that. Pruitt has worked for every job he’s ever gotten, and he’s been successful every step of the way. He fully expects to be successful at Tennessee, too. But anybody who is expecting an overnight sensation is fooling himself. Get ready to scoff and hear the snide remarks, to feel like “this is the same ol’ Tennessee” as the losses pile up in 2018. Just be ready.
But don’t be surprised if it changes soon. The culture is already changing. Players’ bodies are already changing. Recruiting is already changing.
With Phillip Fulmer in charge of the athletic department and Pruitt in charge of the football program, there feels like an old-school approach to things around UT. Will that include winning? We’re all eagerly awaiting that to happen. We all hope it will happen, and while we all yearn for it to happen quickly, common sense and a look up and down the roster tell us we’re going to have to be patient yet again. You can blame Pruitt — and you probably will at some point in 2018 — but that isn’t his fault. When you make awful hire after awful hire, you rebuild every four or five years. Otherwise, the hires wouldn’t be awful, would they?
I’d love to sit here and tell you, “Be patient because the wins will come.” But I can’t. All I can tell you is expect to win soon. Why?
Because it’s the “Pruitt way.” And everything else so far is being done the way he wants.