With apologies to Peaches & Herb, the theme to Tennessee’s 2019 football season could be sung to the tune of the duo’s “Reunited” song:
“Me-di-oc-re and it feels so gooooooood!”
Indeed, rarely has a season so far below UT’s lofty historical standards felt like such a step forward. The Vols are 7-5 and likely headed either to Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl or Nashville’s Music City Bowl, but the excitement buzzing around the fan base would make you think the Vols leapt to 9-3 in Jeremy Pruitt’s second full season.
Part of the reason, of course, is UT actually SHOULD BE 9-3, had it not been for a debacle of a season-opening loss to Georgia State that was arguably the worst in program history and another sleepwalking fest that ended with Alontae Taylor getting lost against BYU on a prayer pass, sending a game into overtime the Vols ultimately lost and fell to 0-2. (It’s a start that’s keeping a lot of us from jumping 100 percent on board, too…)
Part of the reason is the Vols rallying to win five consecutive games to end the season and six of their final seven, with the only setback being a referee-aided, competitive loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Both of those are good enough reasons to be okay with a Season 2 Step Forward. But here’s the real reason we all should be cautiously optimistic:
The development is real.
Not since the strides in Lane Kiffin’s lone 2009 season looked so much more promising for the future than the growth the Vols have witnessed this year. Not only were there upperclassmen who’ve shown no signs of life blossom into difference-makers as the season matured, the freshman class has produced arguably more impact guys than any since Butch Jones’ 2014 class. That group of players was loaded, though it largely fell apart throughout his tenure, leading to guys leaving, getting injured or failing to develop.
Could those things happen under Pruitt? Sure. We’re not fortune tellers, after all. But the improvement of the upperclassmen this year is an indicator it won’t happen. He was a proven developer of players as a coordinator during successful stops at Alabama, Florida State and Georgia, and he has surrounded himself with expensive assistants who’ve had success at multiple stops, as well. Those who aren’t producing in the coaching ranks or in recruiting are getting demoted or heading elsewhere.
Pruitt seems determined to make this work, and athletic director Phil Fulmer is giving him the resources with which to work.
When you combine the development with the talent Pruitt has been able to compile, that could be a winning formula for the Vols to get “back,” even though it’s certainly premature to say they’re “back” right now. A stellar end to the 2020 recruiting class is necessary, and another step forward next year could go a long way in solidifying Tennessee’s return. All the Vols did, really, this year is re-emerge ahead of several mediocre-to-bad programs they’ve always been better than. So, while that was a necessary step, it does nothing to help you gain ground on the Alabamas, Georgias and Floridas of the world.
That comes later. For now, we have to look at the overall ’19 body of work and try to glean reasons for excitement. Here are a few:
- Nigel Warrior’s turnaround: Just how remarkable was the Tennessee senior safety’s season? He went from being a maligned player whose career was written off as late as this year’s Florida game to being named a Pro Football Focus Honorable Mention All-American. Pruitt is known for developing defensive backs, and that’s DC Derrick Ansley’s specialty, too. The light came on in a big way for Warrior, and as we saw positives from other safeties like true freshman Jaylen “Tank” McCullough and Theo Jackson, there’s plenty of reason for excitement moving forward. Toss in Shawn Shamburger going from the doghouse to the penthouse, and it’s obvious the Vols can generate some quality burn out of guys who looked like burned scholarships. Did you ever think a guy like, say, Kenneth George Jr. would blossom into a quality SEC cornerback who shut receivers down at times? Me neither. But he has. That’s coaching and development, folks.
- The Best Got Better: Warrior is just the poster child for improvement, but one thing to look at as another positive is how much Tennessee’s top-echelon players carried this year’s team. Does it suck they’ll be gone next year? Yes. But some of the Jones recruits who were big parts of bad teams got to be big parts of better teams this year, and they earned our adoration in the process. Jauan Jennings came back from injuries and even being off the team to become near-immortal, Daniel Bituli was a hard-hitting star all year, Marquez Callaway made big play after big play, Darrell Taylor was among the SEC’s sack leaders, and Trey Smith got a huge assist from UT’s medical staff to return from his blood clots issue and become one of the league’s top offensive linemen. You can say all these guys were recruits of the previous regime and try not to give the Pruitt staff credit for this, but this group went from being on a team full of problems to part of a solution. They got to go out winners.
- A Rejuvenated Rush: The numbers aren’t a ton different from a season ago, but the Vols went from 11th in the league with 25 sacks in 2018 to fourth with 30 sacks this year. In scoring defense, UT went from 12th (27.9) a season ago to seventh this year (21.7). But over the last half of the season, those numbers soared. Did the competition worsen? Yes, but Alabama’s competition was awful all year and the Tide don’t have any asterisks by their name, huh? If you can’t get excited about what Tennessee did to generate a pass rush this year, you don’t know football. It’s still not good enough, but it got much, much better. Besides Taylor, Pruitt seemed to dial up that Shamburger corner blitz at opportune times all season. Then, you’ve got guys like Kivon Bennett and Deandre Johnson, who blossomed into excellent situational players for UT. When you add elite freshmen like Quavaris Crouch and Roman Harrison and their potential to get after the quarterback, you’ve got reasons to be excited about the future. Beyond those guys, there appear to be quality players across the DL with the development of players such as Darel Middleton, Matthew Butler, Kurott Garland, John Mincey, and LaTrell Bumphus. If Greg Emerson and Elijah Simmons can develop, along with perhaps Kingston Harris, Tennessee could have the makings of a deep, versatile defensive line that can get after QBs from all angles.
- A Trench We Can All Dig: A year ago, I wanted to fire offensive line coach Will Friend. There. I said it. This year, the unit showed signs of life, improving in run blocking throughout the season despite lacking consistency. The group was pretty strong pass-blocking for the majority of the season, despite nearly getting Brian Maurer killed. Darnell Wright and Wanya Morris had growing pains, but they also showed flashes of the cornerstones they’re expected to be. Smith likely won’t return, but if he does, Tennessee could have one of the SEC’s top three lines next year. Brandon Kennedy getting a sixth year of eligibility would be massive, too. K’Rojhn Calbert was a stalwart at times this year, and the freshman duo of Chris Akporghene and Jackson Lampley have bright futures, too. UT has a bunch of potential road-grading maulers on the line, and this was a nice step-forward year. The group still has a ways to go.
- Help is on the Way: It’s easy to forget Tennessee’s best defensive lineman (Emmit Gooden) was lost for the year before the season started and Aubrey Solomon battled injuries all year but has another season of eligibility. There also are reports DeAngelo Gibbs (a Georgia transfer) was a terror to guard as a receiver this year playing against the scout team. With Jennings and Calloway gone, Gibbs should have a huge role as a redshirt junior. Speaking of redshirts, Brandon Johnson has another season after redshirting and delaying his senior year until next season when he can be a big factor. Could Pruitt be recruiting a bit better from a stars standpoint? Yeah, and I wish he’d do a little better instate. But you can’t fault the guy’s identification of quality players. Another Pruitt class will go a long way in getting “his” players in there, guys with attributes and skill sets he believes he can develop.
- So Many Potential Stars: How long has it been since Tennessee had a freshman linebacker as elite as Henry To’oto’o? Is he the best first-year ‘backer ever? Better than A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt? Better than Jerod Mayo? He may be. There’s no doubt he’ll be calling the defense next year, and he looks like a three-year player early on. Throw in Crouch and Harrison, and that’s a trio of difference-makers on the second level. Eric Gray showed everybody what he can do against Vanderbilt, and he has the type of speed and field vision you cannot teach. All he needs is an opportunity and an offensive line, and there are reasons to believe he’s going to have both. Wright and Morris are going to be special along the offensive front, even if both had freshman blunders. McCullough and Warren Burrell are going to be dynamic defensive backs. Maurer was going to be the future and the present at quarterback until he wasn’t, but there are certainly some moldable traits for the first-year signal-caller, and the future is bright, especially when the competition improves. There are others with plenty of potential, too.
When you look at Tennessee’s roster, there are still holes. But there are also bright spots of players who showed glimpses of potential. Are they role players, or can Pruitt and Co. build them into SEC players capable of helping Tennessee get back to the top of the SEC East? Only time will tell, but that’s the reason you should be excited about 7-5.
This is a mediocre team, but there are plenty of players on it who have the ability to be much better than that.