Tennessee football: Jeremy Pruitt's road back (if there is one) should start with youth
Arkansas 24, Tennessee 13.
It’s one thing to have not reached the SEC title game since 2007 or to still be chasing Florida and Georgia. It’s another to be on Year 3 of Head Coach No. 4 of the rebuild and to lose to a team that had won 1 SEC game in the previous 3 years.
Worse, there’s no real basis to feel like Arkansas pulled one over on Tennessee, either. The Vols’ 13-0 first half showed that they certainly had the parts to beat, if not overwhelm, the Razorbacks. The second half showed that the rebuild in Knoxville is still very much in progress.
A couple of key issues to address as the Vols sort through the mess of their 2-4 start:
1. The COVID situation will help every coach on a hot seat. Coaches aren’t responsible for empty seats and they benefit by not hearing a stadium full of boos. Everybody recognizes that trading 3 or 4 games against Cupcake State for 2 more in the SEC puts a lot of teams a bit behind schedule.
2. Three years is not long enough to pull the trigger on a head coach, absent some bizarre circumstances. Admittedly, Derek Dooley got 3 years. Other SEC programs haven’t waited that long. We’re not there yet with Pruitt. Butch Jones got 5. Five years is time for a full recruiting class to cycle through. It seems like a reasonable limitation — again, absent NCAA violations or some massive embarrassment to the university.
3. There’s no massive needle-moving replacement on deck. Remember, hiring Jeremy Pruitt felt like the end to a nightmare. The Tennessee athletic department got a crash course on the fact that potential coaches were not exactly sprinting to Knoxville. There’s a reason Pruitt is the 4th coach of this rebuild — and it’s that the first 3 didn’t have the gumption or skill or good luck to see the job through.
With all of that said, how does UT proceed through the rest of this lost 2020 season? The smart course would be to start moving toward young players. With 4 games left — 3 against ranked teams — there’s no reason to stick with Jarrett Guarantano for a snap longer. It probably needs to be Harrison Bailey’s team for a month.
The Vols listed 6 starters on offense and 5 on defense against Arkansas who are seniors. Nobody is advocating for benching Trey Smith, for instance. But there’s absolutely no reason to start planning for the future and give the top freshmen and sophomores more snaps. The season already won’t count against eligibility. The 6 freshmen on UT’s 2-deep might as well see the field.
If the Vols are going to stumble through the last month and finish, say, 3-7, it will bode well for Pruitt to use the last few dead-legged games to get Bailey ready. Feed Eric Gray. Pass rusher Roman Harrison has shown some flashes, so give the sophomore more time. Freshman receiver Jalin Hyatt made plays against Alabama. Why hold him out against Texas A&M?
Again, fairness demands that the senior Vols who will be playing on Sundays shouldn’t be tossed overboard like extra luggage on the Titanic. But even a star like Smith could use the occasional breather that helps Pruitt and his staff assess the young players and determine what they need to add.
Ultimately, here’s the thing: Even if Pruitt does get 5 years for his shot at rebuilding the Vols, he only has 2 years left. If the guys who are going to save his job aren’t on the roster, he needs to figure that out and sign them quickly.
The rest of UT’s 2020 season could be a tough one. Might as well let the young guys take their knocks.