Can Jeremy Pruitt generate enough fan excitement in first spring game?
KNOXVILLE — There is no doubting that first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt has the Vols fan base looking forward to a new — and in many ways, refreshing — era of Tennessee football this spring.
At the moment, Tennessee seemingly has a guy who understands the culture of the SEC. Pruitt said as much in his opening statements on Dec. 7, declaring that his expectation is to “win every game.”
Pruitt also never misses an opportunity to let fans know that he understands what Tennessee football means. Especially for someone who grew up in northeast Alabama, where tensions run high on the Third Saturday in October, in an area where the Yellowhammer State is a stone’s throw from Big Orange Country.
Fans will get their first, firsthand look at Pruitt roaming the sidelines of Neyland Stadium on Saturday for the program’s annual spring game. Throughout spring practices, the anticipation for this game has been growing.
In reality, spring football games shouldn’t be too much to excited about. But we get excited anyway. It is, after all, the last taste of the game fans get until late August.
It’s even more exciting for fans when they are bringing in a whole new staff and system like the Vols are doing in 2018.
There are other coaches doing just that in the conference this month, including Florida’s Dan Mullen, Arkansas’ Chad Morris, and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher.
This begs the question: How will Pruitt’s first spring game stand up against the other first-year head coaches?
Even more precisely, how will it stand up against division rival Mullen’s or even Kirby Smart’s from two seasons ago?
Smart made sure to relate to fans right out of the gate when he was hired from Alabama at the end of the 2015 season. As soon as he returned in Athens — where he played defensive back — he made sure fans got the message for the spring game.
They responded in kind, stuffing Sanford Stadium with 93,000 fans to get just a glimpse what was in store for a program that had seen 16 consecutive seasons of Mark Richt.
It helped, of course, that 5-star prodigy and early enrollee Jacob Eason was taking snaps at the quarterback position.
In short, there was plenty of reason for Georgia fans to show up and be excited.
Mullen is following Smart’s example, as he was out and about since before the start of spring practice to make sure fans filled The Swamp for their spring game this past Saturday. The Gators drew more than 53,000 fans as Mullen, the former UF OC, tapped into his Florida roots, too. Former players were back on campus, speaking to current Gators and more than 150 alums attended the spring game. Mullen’s success at Mississippi State has Florida fans eager for what’s to come.
With that in mind, can Pruitt do the same?
Top 5 all-time Orange & White game crowds:
1986 – 73,801
2014 – 68,548
2016 – 67,027
2015 – 63,016
2013 – 61,076 https://t.co/wv4hNTO95m
— Dan Harralson (@danharralson) April 16, 2018
Despite his championship caliber background — having been a part of a national title team at Florida State (2013) and Alabama (2017) as a defensive coordinator — he doesn’t have the 5-star recruit like Smart had, the previous ties to a program or successful tenure as a head coach that Mullen has. What he does have is a critical ally in Phil Fulmer and a clean slate.
After five years of Butch Jones, Tennessee is very much starting from scratch — and Pruitt is not inheriting near the roster that Smart (even Mullen) had.
Ultimately, what will bring a new energy to the Hill is Pruitt’s understanding of the culture at a Tennessee program steeped in history and tradition.
Not understanding or accepting that identity early on makes it hard to have success in the SEC. It’s one reason Jones couldn’t succeed and to a degree, it’s why Jim McElwain was let go at Florida after back-to-back trips to Atlanta.
In Year 5, fans in this conference don’t want to hear a coach tout winning the Music City Bowl. With Pruitt’s background and pedigree, the Tennessee faithful shouldn’t expect that mentality out of their head coach.
Elite quarterback recruits and previous head coaching successes aside, that’s enough for fans to fill Neyland on April 21. It’s certainly enough to look forward to the future of the program.