3 reasons UT fans should be excited ... and concerned about 2018 season
Tennessee’s spring practice provided very few answers. In fact, there are as many questions as ever before.
The move from former coach Butch Jones to first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt is a major change. There will be a new offensive and defensive scheme, a new strength and conditioning program and, hopefully for UT fans, a new toughness and sense of accountability.
Here are three reasons to be excited about the upcoming season and three reasons that create cause for concern:
Why UT fans should be excited
1. Pruitt seems ready for his new role
There’s always reason for concern when a long-time assistant becomes a head coach, especially in a conference like the SEC and at a program with strong tradition and fan support like UT. The SEC will provide a weekly challenge. Pruitt will face some of the best coaches and best talent in the nation. UT’s history will also challenge Pruitt. Expectations will rise throughout the summer and fans won’t be patient beyond a couple of bad seasons. Former UT coaches can attest: The honeymoon period is fleeting.
All of that doesn’t seem to affect Pruitt. He seems comfortable in his new role. Pruitt doesn’t seem to feel the need to entertain reporters like former UT coach Derek Dooley nor provide motivational cliches like Jones. Pruitt seems intent on focusing on football. That’s a welcome change after the distractions of the previous regimes.
2. UT’s front seven seems adequate
The term “adequate” isn’t a ringing endorsement. However, it should be considered a compliment considering the schematic and philosophical changes that Pruitt is calling for. The Vols will run a 3-4 defensive front. That will call for bigger interior players and fast — but still big — edge rushers.
Led by Shy Tuttle, the Vols appear to have enough beef in the interior of their defensive line. Of course, Tuttle will need to stay healthy, which he has been unable to do while at UT. Darrin Kirkland Jr., and Daniel Bituli should provide that same sort of size at linebacker.
As far as speed at outside linebacker, the Vols will have to turn to some youth. Darrell Taylor is the one player who seems like the best fit for outside linebacker in Pruitt’s 3-4. As far as speed from the defensive end position, Jonathan Kongbo and Kyle Phillips have both shown positive signs this spring.
3. UT’s wide receivers could be better than anyone expected
Let’s assume that Jauan Jennings can stay on Pruitt’s good side and be available this fall. If that’s the case, UT’s receivers should be a strength. Of course, that’s putting a lot of trust in Jennings, who was dismissed from the team last season. Still, Jennings has made it this far after earning the trust of the new coaching staff. If Jennings is on board, he will likely be joined by Marquez Callaway, Brandon Johnson and Josh Palmer to join him. Those four receivers provide an intriguing blend of size and athleticism. They’ll likely handle most of the snaps this fall. Pruitt, unlike Jones did, won’t be mandating a deep rotations of receivers.
Why UT fans should be concerned
1. The offensive line will not be dominant
It’s important to understand what UT’s offensive line will be in Pruitt’s first season. Short-yardage plays and controlling the clock with the lead will not be easy for this group. There is only one lineman, Trey Smith, who would be considered an intimidating blocker. Other than Smith, there are mostly underachieving players or untested players up front. The best-case scenario is that UT’s offensive line protects its quarterback and is adequate in run blocking. It’s also worth noting that UT’s offensive line won’t have a physical fullback or a physical tight end to help push defenses around. Those weren’t the type of prospects Jones recruited.
2. The secondary will give up more than its fair share of big plays
Look for Pruitt to find his future defensive backfield. That might not result in a great secondary this fall. Nigel Warrior will be UT’s best defensive back. After that, it gets a bit shaky. Todd Kelly Jr. will be a positive addition this summer after he missed spring practice due to injury. He has a great chance to be the other safety next to Warrior.
The main goal for the Vols this summer and during preseason camp is to find three defensive backs with cornerback skills since Pruitt likes to run plenty of nickel coverage. Marquill Osborne and Baylen Buchanan are the leading candidates. However, keep an eye on Alontae Taylor. He was recruited to UT as a receiver but was quickly moved to cornerback. He has taken to that position nicely.
3. Quarterback won’t be great
The Vols will have a starting quarterback who hasn’t yet lived up to his recruiting hype (Jarrett Guarantano) or one that just transferred in this summer (Keller Chryst). Much like the offensive line, UT fans should hope for adequate. It seems unlikely that the quarterback position will be a strength. It seems much more likely that Pruitt will have to protect his first signal caller.