The Jeremy Pruitt era officially began Tuesday as the Tennessee Volunteers took to the practice field for the first of 15 spring practices. Coming off the program’s worst year in history and a winless slate in the SEC, hope is all we have.
Hope of improvement. Hope of development and actual coaching. And hope that some new blood injected in the program will produce enough wins to get back to bowl eligibility.
After back-to-back 9-4 seasons under Butch Jones, 2017 spiraled out of control. Now, the Vols appear in shambles from a roster standpoint, in worse shape, arguably, than they were when Jones took over for Derek Dooley.
This is the early 1980s all over again.
But, we have to start somewhere, don’t we? You aren’t going to beat Georgia and Alabama for recruits until you prove you can win football games. The Vols can’t do that this spring, but they can take steps toward being a better team. There are miles and miles to go before we play.
Let’s take a look at five things to watch as we embark on the spring.
Can Jarrett Guarantano get separation?
Throughout the miserable end of the 2017 football season, Tennessee’s talented redshirt freshman quarterback showed flashes of growth. What’s he going to do once a real quarterbacks coach gets a hold of him now that Tyson Helton is in town?
There’s a reason why Guarantano was the nation’s top-rated dual-threat quarterback according to the 247Sports composite rankings in the 2016 class. The only questions are will he ever get to prove it behind an adequate offensive line, and how will his skill set fit within the framework of this pro-style offense?
Experts said that during his high school days, Guarantano was a pass-first quarterback, and he never proved to be the type of freelancing runner Joshua Dobbs was, anyway. There’s nothing wrong with being able run a little when the pocket collapses, but quarterbacks have to be able to throw the deep ball and the intermediate routes consistently. Guarantano needs to prove he can, or he won’t be the guy.
Keller Chryst is standing over there, watching, and he didn’t transfer from Stanford for his final season to stand on the sideline. He’s coming in to start, and Guarantano will have a battle on his hands once Chryst gets on campus. JG likely won’t have an issue beating out Will McBride, who seems like a poor fit for this scheme, but Chryst is a different story.
Last year, Guarantano’s major issues dealt with timing and accuracy. He struggled being on the same page with his receivers, and the internal clocks quarterbacks need to keep them from getting drive-killing sacks didn’t exist. A lot of that is because of a lack of maturity, but he’ll get lapped if he doesn’t pick it up quickly.
Chryst is right there waiting, JT Shrout is a talented freshman who might be the future, and this staff is going to go after elite signal-callers every year. In other words, Guarantano had better embrace the competition this spring, assert himself as the definitive guy right now and get a head start on Chryst.
If he does that, it’ll be big for his future and, more importantly, for Tennessee’s present.
Position changes steal the spotlight
One of the things we always stayed frustrated about during the Jones era was maximizing the potential of the roster. Sometimes, it was elite prospects not getting any better. At others, it was players we thought fit better at other positions who were locked at places where they were either buried on the depth chart or couldn’t reach their potential.
The perfect example of this, of course, is Tyler Byrd. The South Florida product flipped from Miami on National Signing Day’s eve two years ago, and we all waited to see whether he’d be a safety or a cornerback on the next level. Basically everybody who was anybody recruited him to play defense.
Yet, he’s been wasting away on the second- or third-string at wide receiver during his first two years.
This spring, he’s getting a crack at cornerback, and that’s an exciting development. Also, his best friend and high school teammate, Carlin Fils-aime, is getting the opportunity to play corner as well. He showed flashes at running back a season ago, but he was going to be buried on the depth chart there, especially with Michigan State graduate transfer Madre London coming in. With Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, Trey Coleman and Jeremy Banks on the roster, CFA wouldn’t going to be a factor. Why not put him somewhere where he can? I like it.
When Latrell Bumphus committed to Tennessee over a bunch of nice offers, it was unclear whether he’d play tight end or defensive end. Though some schools (like Jeremy Pruitt at Alabama) was recruiting him to play defensive end, the Vols let him start on offense. Now, Bumphus has grown to nearly 280 pounds, and he is getting a look as a 3-4 defensive end. With his speed and explosion, he’s at least worth a look at a position of need.
An exciting development that transpired today was the news that this coaching staff is high on Princeton Fant, a player who was an afterthought in last year’s class after an injury-riddled senior season. He came in as a wide receiver, moved to tight end, was thought to be able to play linebacker, and nobody was sure where he was going to play or if he was. Pruitt and Co. are giving him a seven-practice look at running back. That’s an intriguing thought considering Fant is a nice-looking athlete who is around 6’2″, 220 pounds. Those guys don’t grow on trees, and if he develops a knack for the position, he’s got four years left to grow.
Ja’Quain Blakely, who was a linebacker under Jones, is moving over to tight end to get a look there. Also — even though this was to be expected — some players who were defensive ends will drop back and play outside “Jack” linebacker in a 3-4. The perfect player for that position is Darrell Taylor, but Austin Smith is another guy who can get a look there.
So, who is going to flourish under Pruitt?
Aren’t you sick of the days of guys like Kahlil McKenzie, Todd Kelly Jr. and Jonathan Kongbo coming in as highly coveted recruits and never getting any better? Thanks, Butch. Hopefully, those days are over. UT’s coaching staff has been lauded by virtually everybody as being an experienced, excellent group of developers.
Some candidates to come out of the woodwork and reach their potential are Taylor and Kongbo. I think we could see both of those guys come through and be dependable players in 2018. Though Nigel Warrior arguably was Tennessee’s best player a season ago, he could blossom and be the defensive leader this year.
As for guys who’ve not really done much who could thrive? Receivers Jacquez Jones and LaTrell Williams are a duo of guys with speed and ability who could turn heads and develop under receivers coach David Johnson. Both of those guys are same type of player as Memphis stud Anthony Miller, who Johnson helped from a lightly-recruited no-star to a guy who’ll assuredly get drafted this year.
The Vols desperately need a couple of offensive linemen to step up, and with such a slim group out there this spring, it’s a great opportunity for freshmen Jerome Carvin and Ollie Lane as well as redshirt freshman Riley Locklear. I like their potential, and at least one (and probably two) of them will be rotational players in ’18.
Defensively, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about redshirt freshman Theo Jackson and junior Marquill Osborne. One of those guys never got the chance to blossom under Jackson, and Osborne — who was heavily recruited by Clemson, Ohio State and others — hasn’t reached his potential. Can he be a playmaker for the Vols? He’s got the talent to be.
Passing the test
Having a vertical passing attack is a nice theory. If the Vols can do that, it’ll open some things up on offense and give UT an element it never really had under Jones.
But you can’t pass the football if you don’t have anybody who can catch it.
It’s massive news for the Vols that Jauan Jennings is back (for now) and even though he is out for this spring battling injuries, he’s got the potential to be one of the top receivers in the SEC if he can stay healthy and keep his head on straight. But UT needs more than just him.
We’ve already mentioned Jones and Williams as a couple of possible breakout stars. But UT has other players who are capable of doing nice things with the ball in their hands. Rising junior Brandon Johnson led the team with 482 receiving yards a season ago, and everybody knows how good Marquez Callaway can be if he consistently gets open and can get the ball. He doesn’t always get separation, and he and Guarantano wasn’t on the same page a season ago, but if they can get there, this receiving corps has a lot of potential.
Just think of Jennings, Callaway and Johnson as a trio if they live up to their potential. That would give UT a backup corps of Jones, Williams, and we haven’t even mentioned Josh Palmer, who proved to be the Vols best receiver at getting open a season ago, even if he struggled to catch the ball consistently.
Jordan Murphy has some potential too, and the redshirt freshman will get a chance to prove it this spring. We also haven’t mentioned Alontae Taylor, who may well be Tennessee’s top offensive recruit from the ’18 class, and he’s on campus ready to try to crack the two-deep rotation. Cedric Tillman will get here this summer, so that’s another possibility in the rotation.
This is an exciting group to watch, and, yes, they were terrible a season ago. But they will get great coaching from Williams, and in this offense, a few of them could shine. That starts this spring.
Where do the defensive pieces fit?
Finally, we all want to know where everybody is going to fit as the Vols transition to a 3-4 base package.
As I’ve mentioned, Taylor and Smith will drop back and be outside linebackers who’ll get after the quarterback. JUCO transfer Jordan Allen, who certainly looks the part in pictures after coming in from San Francisco in the early signing period, will battle for a starting outside ‘backer position, as well.
The Vols already have a great middle linebacker in Darrin Kirkland Jr., but he’s yet to prove he can stay healthy. There’s a big opportunity for Alabama sophomore Will Ignont, who belongs in the section above regarding breakout players. He’s a big, fast linebacker who looks like he belongs on the Crimson Tide roster, and he’ll get the opportunity to win a spot at inside ‘backer as well. Don’t forget about Daniel Bituli, who was one of Tennessee’s biggest playmakers a season ago. He’ll have a shot to win a spot, too.
It’s going to be interesting to see who plays the all-important “Star” position in Pruitt’s defense, which was so dynamic during Pruitt’s days with the Tide. Theo Jackson and Osborne could get looks there, and Jackson seems like a perfect fit for that spot. Shawn Shamburger could wind up being a guy who gets a look there, too. He’s simply too good to keep off the field, and if he doesn’t play at that spot, he will at cornerback.
Opportunities abound, and it’s going to be interesting to see where guys like Kongbo and Kyle Phillips fit on the defensive front, too. How about Alexis Johnson? He and Shy Tuttle look like they’ll be nose guards in this scheme, but are they big enough? Can Eric Crosby be conditioned enough to make a difference inside? Is Matthew Butler going to break the rotation at defensive end?
A lot of these questions need to be answered, and we’ll start finding them out during spring.