KNOXVILLE — Following the worst season in school history, Tennessee can bounce back from its 4-8 finish to potentially a 10-win season in 2018.
When new head coach Jeremy Pruitt took over, he expressed his expectation “to win every game that we play.”
All head coaches have that desire and mindset, but Pruitt’s winning track record along with his ability to game-plan and prepare players gives Tennessee faithful a reason to be optimistic.
Optimism alone won’t guarantee a winning season, which would be only the program’s fourth this decade, much less winning 10 games. But the former Alabama assistant has brought in some solid recruits considering the circumstances, and he should provide an upgrade in game-day coaching over Butch Jones — perhaps enough to turn this season’s narrow losses to SEC East foes Florida, South Carolina and Kentucky into victories in 2018.
With time to prepare for an opening game matchup against West Virginia in Charlotte, Pruitt has a chance to get off on the right foot against the Mountaineers. With three other winnable non-conference games — against ETSU, UTEP and Charlotte — the Vols will have a legitimate chance of eclipsing nine regular-season wins.
If the Vols take care of Vanderbilt and a Missouri team in transition from losing offensive coordinator Josh Heupel (and maybe record-breaking QB Drew Lock), that leaves games at Georgia and Auburn and a home date with Alabama as the only games in which UT will be a clear underdog. The Vols get Florida and Kentucky at home.
In a best-case scenario, the Vols could have a bowl victory push them to their first 10-win season since 2007.
Hand-picked by new AD Phillip Fulmer, Pruitt addressed Vol Nation when he was hired and said that there is nothing wrong with thinking big early. Some might look at Tennessee and think it will top out around 7 or 8 wins in 2018, but Pruitt isn’t wired to think that way.
“Expectations, I know everyone in this room is excited,” Pruitt said during his introductory press conference. “I’m going to tell you what my expectations are. You’re expectations are not going to be near what mine are.
“I am a firm believer that our players are going to take on the personality of their head coach.”
Tennessee players who are carryovers from the Jones era will have to quickly adapt to Pruitt’s vision for Tennessee to be a “big, fast, dominating, aggressive, relentless football team that nobody in the SEC wants to play.”
Usually with a coaching change comes attrition. Some players defect before, during or after spring practices, and Pruitt is not immune to that. But for the most part, the existing team members are hungry to win, believe in Pruitt’s vision and are likely to stay.
“These guys realize that we want to change the culture; they’re hungry and they’re excited,” Pruitt said.
“There was a time and place that this university was feared among the rest of the SEC. My goal as the head football coach at the University of Tennessee is to get us back to that point.”
5 reasons Tennessee can win 10 games in 2018
1. Coaching staff
When Jones was hired in December 2012, he let it be known that he was bringing in the best coaching staff in the nation. That did not pan out. The new Tennessee staff provides a recruiting footprint with relationships in the Southeast along with the ability to develop players and have personnel in place for game day.
- Tyson Helton (Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks)
- Brian Niedermeyer (TBA)
- Robert Gillespie (Running Backs)
- Will Friend (Offensive Line)
- Tracy Rocker (Defensive Line)
- Chris Rumph (Outside Linebackers)
- Kevin Sherrer (Defensive Coordinator and Inside Linebackers)
- Terry Fair (Defensive Backs)
- Charles Kelly (Special Teams/Safeties)
2. Better QB play
With the possible exception of Joshua Dobbs, Jones didn’t develop quarterbacks.
Helton is a developer of the quarterback position and began his coaching career under June Jones at Hawaii. I spent time with him while working at UAB, and during his tenure in Birmingham he improved quarterback-turned country music star Sam Hunt into a nearly 2,000-yard passer in one season. Helton also developed Joe Webb from a running quarterback into a pocket passer who passed for 4,666 yards as a two-year starter.
In 2014-2015 Helton served as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Western Kentucky before heading to USC. At Western Kentucky, he coached quarterback Brandon Doughty to 9,885 passing yards and 97 TDs in two seasons.
Helton makes a point to have his quarterbacks thrive in three-step drops, sell play-action and also have his QB accustomed to running a NASCAR package in games. His NASCAR packages are a series of 5-10 plays that they are comfortable with, operating from play-calling on wristbands with a quick cadence.
When the play is executed and the whistles blow, an uptempo-style continues unless the staff instructs otherwise. The quarterback has full freedom to call plays on the wristband based on what he feels comfortable running in NASCAR mode. That shows how good Helton is at developing players and being ready.
It is still yet to be seen if Quinten Dormady will return in 2018. Jarrett Guarantano and incoming freshman JT Shrout have the tools to run Helton’s offense and will benefit by developing under the UT OC. Will McBride will also provide depth with starting game experience.
3. Pieces in place on defense
What makes Pruitt a good coach is not having a formation dictating what type of coach he is. He will run what he feels is the best scheme for that opponent.
Pruitt says that he thinks “it’s important that you play the best personnel that you have.”
“If you’ve got two really good linebackers and five really good defensive linemen, then we probably need to be playing those five defensive linemen and those two really good linebackers,” he said. “I think that’s part of it, especially with me having a high school background. There’s some years that the three-technique weighs 300 pounds and there’s some years that he weighs 150.
“You have to find a way to be adaptable, be flexible and that’s what we’ll do.”
Pruitt and his defensive staff will lose defensive backs Justin Martin, Shaq Wiggins, Emmanuel Moseley and Evan Berry, along with linebackers Cortez McDowell, Elliott Berry and Colton Jumper. Kendal Vickers will be lost off the line.
Todd Kelly Jr., Marquill Osborne, Nigel Warrior, Baylen Buchanan, MaLeik Gatewood, Rashaan Gaulden, Micah Abernathy, Maleik Gray, Shawn Shamburger, Theo Jackson, Terrell Bailey and Cheyenne Labruzza all return in the defensive backfield. It is still to be seen if Gaulden will test his chances by declaring for the NFL Draft. Wide receiver Tyler Byrd could also make a move over to the defensive backfield and play a role on defense.
Returning linebackers are Austin Smith, Daniel Bituli, Quart’e Sapp, Dillon Bates, Darrin Kirkland Jr., Shanon Reid, Will Ignont and Solon Page III.
Defensive linemen Darrell Taylor, Jonathan Kongbo, Paul Bain, Alexis Johnson, Ja’Quain Blakely, Brandon Benedict, Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips, Quay Picou, Khalil McKenzie, Deandre Johnson, Eric Crosby, Ryan Thaxton, Matthew Butler and Kivon Bennett all return. Greg Emerson (early enrollee), Brant Lawless, Jordan Allen (JUCO, early enrollee) and Kingston Harris (early enrollee) all have signed in the 2018 class.
4. Serviceable offensive line
The Vols lose Coleman Thomas, Jashon Robertson, Brett Kendrick and Jack Jones (career injury) off the offensive line. There’s no doubt coaches need to focus on signing more linemen on the traditional signing day Feb. 7, but new offensive line coach Will Friend has returning players and signees to work with.
Trey Smith headlines a group that includes Marcus Tatum, Drew Richmond, Nathan Niehaus, Ryan Johnson, Devante Brooks, Chance Hall, Riley Locklear and K’Rojhn Calbert. Jerome Carvin, Jahmir Johnson (JUCO), Tanner Antonutti and Ollie Lane (early enrollee) signed in the 2018 class.
Running back John Kelly is declaring early for the NFL Draft. The Vols can overcome his loss with returning backs Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan, Carlin Fils-aime and Trey Coleman.
Chandler and Jordan are 5-foot-11, 195-pound backs who can run inside with power and speed but also get to the edge. Coleman is a bigger body at 5-11, 214-pounds who can be beneficial in short-yardage situations. Fils-aime showed signs of improving late in the season.
Jeremy Banks signed in the Early Signing Period. Banks, 6-2, 215-pounds, could become a factor as a freshman.
On the outside, there is talent.
WR Marquez Callaway has the ability, coordination and hands to make big plays. Having Helton help coordinate the flow of the offense will make Callaway better. NASCAR packages can also help Callaway and the quarterback.
Brandon Johnson will continue to be a factor in the passing game after leading the Vols in receiving yards (482) in 2017. Josh Palmer, Latrell Williams, Jordan Murphy, Princeton Fant, Jacquez Jones and D.J. Henderson all return and can have roles defined. Alontae Taylor signed early and will enroll early in January.
Jauan Jennings could also see a return to the Tennessee program and would be a factor in 2018.