Pruitt lays out goals for Vols' spring camp: Find out who the competitors are
KNOXVILLE — The Jeremy Pruitt era on Rocky Top has reached spring practices.
The first-year UT head coach wants to make the most of all 15.
“I think our guys did a nice job today, we’ll watch film and see what the first day looks like,” Pruitt said following practice No. 1. “But I know this — and I told the kids this — you get 15 practices, today was our first day and we’re never going to get it back. I hope that everyone out on the field today took advantage of their opportunities.”
Here are several goals Pruitt hopes the Vols accomplish this spring.
Becoming a team, competing and handling adversity
It sounds cliche — but Tennessee needs to become a united team that can compete and also handle adversity. None of that was the case during a disastrous 8-loss 2017 season.
“The first thing we talked about is that we want to become a team, we think that’s important for us,” Pruitt said. “We want to learn how to practice, we want to see how much knowledge we retain at each individual position and we want to see who the competitors are, we want to see who handles adversity.”
Part of a coming together is practice structure.
Pruitt referred to football being a collision sport, and a key part of learning how to practice is knowing how to avoid being a banged up team like the Vols have been over the past two seasons with a wrath of injuries.
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“You have to know how to use your face and hands and strike and that’s all three levels on defense,” he said. “It happens with the offensive line, the tight ends, running backs, wide receivers and everybody that plays special teams, learning how to strike, learning and playing with the proper body angles so you have balance and body control where you can stay on your feet. We want to be able to practice. We want to be able to thud runners and be thudded. To do that, you’ve got to practice and stay on your feet.
“Also, part of it is you have to be able to sustain and you’ve got to be able to do it over and over and we’re trying to put them in adverse situations to see how they respond. That’s kind of what I’m talking about.”
With any coaching change comes evaluating players, even veterans. For Pruitt and his staff, position changes have already taken place early in spring practices. Carlin Fils-aime (running back to cornerback), Princeton Fant (tight end to running back), Ja’Quain Blakely (defensive line to tight end) and Tyler Byrd (wide receiver to defensive back) worked at new positions during the first spring practice.
Fant, at 6-3, 216 pounds, could very well be a factor in the offense as a lead-blocker in the run game. Pruitt says that it might not be a “long-term position” in the backfield for Fant, but he will be given an opportunity at the position.
“When he got here, he went to the tight end room to start with,” Pruitt said. “When we got here, we sent him to another room. We are going to give him a shot at running back and see where it goes. He is going to do that for about seven days. We have several guys who are working for seven days at different positions, and then we are going to re-evaluate them and see if they need to go back.”
Pruitt “did look at everybody in the organization,” and to him, evaluations “are tough because you don’t know exactly if they played in a game” and “didn’t know the previous scheme (under the previous staff) and what they were supposed to do.”
Pruitt’s focus in the evaluation process was to find out who his competitors were. That’s been a constant theme, and will continue to be.
“One thing I tried to do is see what kind of competitors they were,” he said. “The other thing was just like how you would evaluate a high school kid, what kind of athletic ability and do they have balance, body control? Can they change direction? Do they know how to strike? We did with everyone in the organization and we actually looked at a lot of practice tape too just to kind of get an idea.”
Having players willing and being all-in considering a position change is not always easy. But after the worst season in school history in 2017, indications are that UT players are wanting to turn things around no matter what it takes.
“I would say the big thing is they’re all willing,” Pruitt said. “They’re all willing to train, they’re willing to try a new position, which is important. I’ve seen over the years, you possibly move a guy to a different position, he agrees to it, and then he’s not really all-in. These guys are trying to understand and comprehend what we’re trying to get done, and they’re giving effort to give it a chance.”
Tennessee has a few injuries on top of some early departures to the 2018 NFL Draft. When Pruitt returned after his College Football Playoff run at Alabama, he mentioned that the Vols could be around 77 scholarship players this fall.
Pruitt views his personnel “numbers-wise having as many guys out there as anybody with the exceptions of a couple of positions.”
The offensive line will be short-handed this spring with Chance Hall and Trey Smith sidelined, and Nathan Niehaus and K’Rojhn Calbert likely sidelined. Tennessee will be down to seven scholarship offensive linemen for the duration of spring practices.
“We have them, and they will be back, but it does make things a little tougher,” Pruitt said on being limited during the spring due to injuries and lack of depth. “This happens everywhere, so we have to find a way to figure it out and get it done.”