As odd and painful as it sounds, Tennessee needs to follow Kentucky's blueprint
Tennessee need look no further than to its next opponent to see how to dramatically raise the level of the program. Just look to The Commonwealth.
Kentucky’s football program has been a laughing stock for the vast majority of the past 50 years. Sure, the Wildcats were entertaining at times, perhaps even an occasional threat to the SEC East stalwarts. Then, something changed and Kentucky became a program to be respected. What, exactly, happened?
First, Kentucky’s players further bought in to Mark Stoops’ system. There was loyalty there when linebacker Josh Allen, safety Mike Edwards and tight end C.J. Conrad decided to return for their seniors seasons instead of entering the NFL Draft.
UT coach Jeremy Pruitt needs to build that sense of community like his predecessors never could. Players even on the verge of school records, like running back Jalen Hurd, couldn’t run away fast enough from Tennessee’s football program under former coach Butch Jones.
Pruitt has to be realistic. Fighting for bowl eligibility is valiant. Thinking about the future is wise.
If Pruitt’s Vols stumble again, it’s time to lean toward the youth on this team in order to find out exactly what they’re capable of. That will require more playing time for younger players. There was a time when that would be thought of as giving up on the seniors. It’s actually quite the opposite in today’s sports climate. The seniors would probably rather prepare for the NFL rather than participate in two weeks of practice for a meaningless bowl game.
If the Vols lean toward playing younger players, Pruitt will have a more seasoned team in the future. Look at Kentucky. The Wildcats returned 17 offensive and defensive starters from last season, seven on offense and 10 on defense. One, offensive tackle Landon Young, was lost in the preseason due to injury. Still, the Cats loaded up for 2018. Despite last week’s loss to Georgia, it has still been a stellar season for Kentucky. It could get better next season, even if Benny Snell heads to the NFL.
The Wildcats will return half of their starters from this year’s team. No, that’s not as strong as last season, but it’s still something to keep Kentucky fans optimistic about the future.
This all happened for Kentucky because Stoops decided he was going to depend on good young talent in 2016 and 2017. He felt he had time to build a program and Kentucky supported him.
Pruitt should feel the same way. The Vols have to make a youth movement, whether that’s this week, this month or next year.
Pruitt has the equity to take his time and plan for the future. That last thing the Vols need is another coaching change. Even a 4-8 record this season wouldn’t suggest that. Changing the culture at UT is Pruitt’s most immediate goal. However, planning for the future needs to be the longer term plan.
No, that’s not fair to UT’s seniors if they lose playing time and any chance to make a bowl game. However, no one said college football was fair. Pruitt has to think about where Tennessee’s program will be in two years not where they might go bowling in 2018.