5 biggest concerns I have about Tennessee in 2019
Have concerns about Tennessee’s football team entering the 2019 season? Well, you should.
However, have faith, too. The Vols are in better shape this year than a year ago when Jeremy Pruitt was about to begin his first season as a head coach at any level. The Vols had more questions than an episode of “Jeopardy” at this time last year. Things have gotten better, but some areas could use some work.
The Vols went into the 2018 season with concerns about their quarterback and defensive front. Those worries haven’t been completely alleviated, but Pruitt has to feel better about where he stands as opposed to a year ago.
Tennessee was also facing a massive philosophical shift from 2017 to 2018. The Vols were designed to be light and fast on offense and defense in Butch Jones’ final season. That didn’t work. Then, in steps Pruitt.
Pruitt’s football philosophy was the exact opposite. Pruitt wants to be Nick Saban-like, which means big and physical. That’s like hiring a plumber to do some carpentry. Pruitt survived, recruited well and almost got the Vols into a bowl game. The philosophy should be changed by now. That means it’s time to show some improvement on the field.
Pruitt should be able to do that. He has a team that is closer to what he would mold. He has a team that is reportedly more physically ready for his demands. And his schedule is much less daunting this season. The Vols should improve, but Tennessee fans have learned there is no guarantee.
Here are the 5 biggest areas of concern for the Vols heading into Pruitt’s second year as a head coach:
1. Offensive line
Tennessee’s concerns up front are no great secret. Pruitt has talked about them openly. The Vols have two choices. No. 1, go with young, talented players who are sure to make mistakes. No. 2, go with less talented players with more experiences. Neither sounds like a fantastic option.
The Vols won’t be great on the line this season, but they could be serviceable. Keeping a quarterback upright should be the top priority. Can the Vols be formidable with a strong push in the running game? Given the roster, that would be a bonus.
In a perfect world, Trey Smith plays every snap, and Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright will live up to their 5-star billing. It’s obvious nobody wants to be on the field more than Smith, but will his health allow? If the 2 freshmen shine, then the Vols could put them each at tackle for the next 3 years. However, recruiting rankings don’t always hold up in the SEC.
Think about how thin the Vols are at so many positions. Pruitt was charged with rebuilding a roster and he’s not even done with the starting lineup. After that, it gets scary. The Vols can’t withstand injuries at multiple positions, most notably at quarterback, the offensive line and the defensive front. Some key injuries could sideline all of the Vols’ goals for 2019.
A stable strength and conditioning program may have improved the UT’s depth. Hopefully, Pruitt doesn’t have to find out.
Another way to build depth this season would be for some freshmen to step in. The Vols appear to have that on the offensive line. Linebacker Quavaris Crouch is another youngster to watch. There’s playing time to be had even if you just showed up on campus.
3. Follow the leader?
There doesn’t seem to be any clear cut leader for the Vols — at least publicly. Jauan Jennings is a self-described alpha dog. UT fans had better hope a handful have shown up during offseason workouts. I’d bet that quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and linebacker Daniel Bituli have asserted themselves as leaders. They were chosen as representatives at SEC Media Days. That would signal that Pruitt is happy with their leadership.
Hard times will likely be coming for the Vols. They had better have some players who are willing to step to the forefront. Coaches can only do so much. The Vols won’t be playing for championships this season. They’ll be playing for a low-level bowl game. More importantly, they may be playing for pride late into the season.
4. Another transition
I firmly believe that exchanging Tyson Helton for Jim Chaney was an upgrade at offensive coordinator. However, every coach has his nuances, language and idiosyncrasies. It’s up to Guarantano and his teammates to accept those changes and adapt quickly. A coaching change can create a pause in improvement — or even a step back. Pruitt doesn’t need that.
Coaching changes typically aren’t an issue at Alabama because nothing changes. It’s the Nick Saban way. That’s not the case at most schools. The terminology will be different. UT’s offensive players had better have done their homework.
5. Pruitt’s interest in the offense
Pruitt must trust Chaney with the offense. He didn’t do so with Helton and the dysfunction showed. I’m sure that Pruitt trusts Chaney going into the season, but what happens when struggles occur. Pruitt needs to trust his hire.
Not delegating is a common mistake that first-time coaches make. Pruitt has to get beyond that. Chaney is proven and wants to run the football. That’s what Pruitt wanted after a year with Helton. Now, it’s time to let the new combination play out.