Tennessee's toxic culture is changing. Jauan Jennings is proof, and Jeremy Pruitt deserves the credit
It’s easy to look at Tennessee’s depth chart and find holes. It’s easy to judge some missteps that Jeremy Pruitt might have made in his first year as a head coach last season.
It’s not nearly as easy to judge Pruitt’s ability to change the culture at Tennessee, which was a wreck when he arrived. Changing a culture takes a lot more work than deriving a gameplan. Receiver Jauan Jennings provided some insight into the culture change this week when he met with the media. Things appear to be going swimmingly.
You remember the old Jennings, right? He was the guy who blasted UT’s former coaching staff on social media with an expletive-filled tirade, was kicked off the team then eventually reinstated once Pruitt took over. Why bring him back? That was a risky move. Pruitt didn’t need to do that.
Pruitt wouldn’t be judged in his first year simply by UT’s number of wins. Fans wanted to know if Pruitt had the Vols moving in the right direction. Based on Jennings’ recent comments, that appears to be the case.
The most clickable quote from Jennings during his media session centered around him being the alpha male. That was the easy headline. It seemed cocky.
“I’m the alpha male anywhere I go,” Jennings said.
Is that cause for concern? Is Jennings beyond confident and just a bit too brash? His past would indicate so. But don’t judge Jennings on just one quote. Dig a bit deeper.
When asked how he has matured, Jennings deflected the question to compliment his teammates.
“Not just me, but the whole team,” Jennings said. “Getting better every day and just playing your role. All you have to do is your job.”
Wait. That sounds like coach speak. Who is this guy that looks like an awful lot like Jennings?
When asked who has made the most impressive play in fall camp, Jennings said, “There have been too many to name anyone. Just a lot of players out there from the running back position and wide receivers have made some plays. We have seen some pancakes from both sides of the ball. We are just ready to go.”
Jennings’ meltdown in 2017 also included reports that he came to practice demanding to play quarterback before the Vanderbilt game, even though he had exclusively been a receiver before. That’s a pretty bold thing to do.
Jennings can still be bold, but not like that. Just ask him if he would be OK with taking some days off to make sure his bothersome knee is recovering.
“I’m definitely not going to take that,” Jennings said of being held out of practice. “Me personally, I can’t go out there and watch my brothers grind the way they do and not be involved. There’s no way I can do that.”
So what is the narrative for Jennings heading into the 2019 football season? First, he is much more coached up when it comes to media interviews. Second, he is still a very confident young man. Lastly, he has changed. That’s a testament to Pruitt and his leadership.
Jennings’ role on UT’s football team has evolved drastically. He’s gone from a malcontent to, perhaps, a leader. That’s quite a change.
Maybe Jennings is saying all the right things because he knows he’s playing his senior season for an NFL paycheck. That doesn’t matter. Jennings is able to keep his confidence and not go awry at the same time. Jennings deserves credit for his turnaround, but so does Pruitt.
Changing the culture at Tennessee is the first step to take before even dreaming of a championship. Pruitt seemingly has done that. Does that mean the Vols will win 10 games this season? No. There’s no reason, yet, to even think that Pruitt can be an elite coach at UT. However, that’s not the issue. If Pruitt has truly changed the culture at UT, then he should be able to get the Vols to a championship level — or someone else will.
Pruitt isn’t anywhere close to being on the hot seat, but any coach will be if they don’t win enough games. Pruitt has shown that he’s a valuable commodity. He knows how to build a program into respectability. The Vols haven’t had that in a long time.
While every UT fan would like for Pruitt to succeed, let’s imagine that’s not the case. What if Pruitt gets the Vols to a pair of 8-win seasons and suddenly UT’s fan base isn’t happy enough? What if UT athletic director Phillip Fulmer decides to make a change a few years from now? Don’t rule it out even if the Vols have success under Pruitt. Mark Richt can attest to that.
If that is ever the case, then the Vols will be in a much better position to hire an elite coach thanks to the change in culture. UT hasn’t been able to get its top targets in the past 3 coaching searches. The Vols were deemed as toxic in football circles. Pruitt is changing that.
Fulmer has played a key role in changing the culture at UT. He always says that Pruitt is a “football coach.” That might seem simple, but don’t underestimate those words. That statement means that Fulmer firmly believes that Pruitt will get the Vols headed in the right direction. Based on Jennings’ most recent comments, that seems to be the case.