We tend to overestimate the importance of a previous coach’s weakness. Butch Jones got elite talent to Knoxville, but struggled to keep it there. Potential difference makers from Preston Williams to Venzell Boulware left the program before their time was up, and actual difference makers like Jalen Hurd did the same. You can call it chemistry or culture or whatever you like, but it’s a significant percentage of the reason Jones isn’t here anymore.
How significant will this issue be for Jeremy Pruitt, a first-time head coach?
#6: New Coach, New Chemistry
So far, it’s been a non-issue. Darrin Kirkland Jr. flirted with the idea of transferring but ultimately stayed. Rashaan Gaulden, John Kelly, and Kahlil McKenzie all went pro earlier than hoped, the latter two going only in the sixth round. But we’ve avoided the rash of transfers a new coach often deals with.
One significant difference between Jones and Pruitt: the current coach is thoroughly familiar with recruiting, coaching, and developing four-and-five-star talent. There’s no other option at Florida State, Georgia, and Alabama. Butch Jones was successful at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but his only experience at a power five school before coming to Knoxville was two years as the receivers coach at West Virginia.
Again, we’re probably overestimating the importance of chemistry just because Jones struggled with it. But though the Vols have avoided the transfer bug, chemistry can become an issue in another way for first-year coaches.
As you’re probably aware, Nick Saban lost to Louisiana-Monroe in year one. Kirby Smart lost to Vanderbilt. Dabo Swinney lost to a 2-10 Maryland squad. It happens.
But it usually doesn’t happen out of the gate. Swinney lost to Maryland on October 3, Smart to Vanderbilt on October 15, Saban to ULM on November 17.
(Of note: if you think Lane Kiffin’s worst loss at Tennessee wasn’t the Ole Miss debacle, but the UCLA game – and I’m in this camp – that happened in week two. So this isn’t a hard and fast rule.)
When you have players who were recruited on the promise of championships, and especially players who almost got a taste of one like Alabama in 2005, Georgia in 2014, and Tennessee in 2016? They can lose interest much faster in a rebuilding year, especially if they’re seniors.
The good news on that front: the Vols only have 12 seniors, and only seven of them (Todd Kelly Jr., Micah Abernathy, Shy Tuttle, Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips, Chance Hall, Paul Bain) have been meaningful contributors. There shouldn’t be a whole lot of guys who lose interest, because most of them can be back in 2019.
The (potential) bad news: there aren’t a whole lot of guys in any one category.
You’ve got those seven seniors, plus guys like Kirkland and Jauan Jennings who know what it’s like to play in and win big games. You’ve got the major contributors from last year looking for redemption like Guarantano, Ty Chandler, Marquez Callaway, etc. You’ve got high profile recruits who haven’t gotten their chance yet like Maleik Gray and Jordan Murphy. You’ve got Pruitt’s signees. And then you’ve got a whole bunch of graduate transfers, including potential starters at quarterback and running back.
That’s a lot of ingredients in the soup bowl. We’re all wondering if it’s any good. But it’s also worth wondering if it’ll turn five or six weeks in.
The scenario some pundits play out for this team is a 2-6ish start with a chance to get bowl eligible in November via Charlotte, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. It’s what Derek Dooley was able to accomplish in 2010 (against a worse version of Vanderbilt and a lifeless Ole Miss team), in part by turning the team over to the future with Tyler Bray. If Jeremy Pruitt’s first year ends up in a similar ditch, he may have to make a similar call to get it back out and bowl eligible.
Chemistry is tricky business, and there are some things you just can’t learn until you’re the head coach. I don’t know if this is the sixth-most-important question this year or the tenth or the first. But it’s in there somewhere. And when the Vols lose a couple of games – hopefully later than sooner – how Pruitt gets his hodgepodge of players to respond as a team will be important.
10 Questions for 2018