Fred White has never been one to mince words.
The former Tennessee hard-hitting safety has always been willing to share his opinion on the Vols. I visited with White about what he thinks about first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt, his defense and UT’s pending quarterback competition.
Q: What can you tell us about what you’ve heard or what you’ve gleaned from a Jeremy Pruitt and his staff?
White: “The one thing I get from is, man, he’s a football guy. A few years ago we had coach (John) Chavis (as a defensive coordinator) and Coach Chavis was a guy everybody thought, ‘Well he may not want to be a head coach because he doesn’t like the media side of it.’ I kind of get the same thing with with our coach now and I’m thinking to myself this guy’s very similar to that. However, he does have to talk, but does he have the knowledge to coach these guys?
“He’s a very good coach, very good teaching coach, which is what we need right now. Our guys have not played disciplined football in quite some time and he’s a stickler for things like that. Watching him in practice and spring practice has shown me all of that.”
Q: What does that mean when you say not disciplined when you look back on that Butch Jones team? Is that poor alignment or poor fundamentals? What did you see on the field during spring practice?
White: “All of the of the above. … Sometimes football is about alignment and assignment. If you’re lined up wrong from the beginning, there’s no way you’re going to win that battle. There’s a lot of times our guys were lined up incorrectly.
“I can go back and I remember plays against South Carolina at home a few years ago and they ran a corner route with the inside slot receiver and they were on the far hash … Our defensive back was lined up to the inside. We had all that field to cover. They throw the pass and it was a touchdown. I mean it was wide open. There was no way (the defensive back) could actually cover that guy because of how he was lined up. Those are things you can’t do in the SEC.”
“It’s a game of inches. That one inch to the left or the right that he was wrong made the difference in that pass play. Look at the guys also when it comes to outside containment. We were in the wrong gap or our guys bit on something they weren’t supposed to bite on because they had outside contain and we let the guy get outside of us, the running back.
“We played against Georgia last year and most of those runs came on the outside edge of our defense, outside of our defensive end which means he was not doing his job, not keeping outside contain and making that play turn up inside of him.”
Q: How long does it take to unlearn bad habits?
White: “It shouldn’t take long. However, a lot of times players have habits. That’s the one thing he’s had a hard time of. Coach Pruitt has a hard time to break these guys of the bad habits these guys have been taught. So hopefully those things happen.
“When you get into a dogfight and these guys are tired, you make the most mistakes when you’re tired. So hopefully with with the change in our strength and conditioning program, our guys are not as tired as they’ve been in the past.
That’s when you make mistakes.
“If we’re having success early, those things will play themselves out there, but they’ll take care of themselves. However, when the going gets tough is when you try to figure out whether these guys are going to believe and buy into the practices these guys are running right now.”
Q: What more insight can you share about Pruitt’s coaching style?
White: “I love his coaching style as a player. The way he understands the game, you can tell. He can look at a defensive lineman and say, ‘Hey, you were in the wrong gap. You used the wrong arm.’ Not all coaches can do that.
“Not to bring up Butch Jones because he’s gone, but Butch couldn’t do that. Butch couldn’t tell a lineman, a linebacker or safety where he was lined up wrong. Coach Pruitt can do that. That, in and of itself, shows you what kind of coach he is. As a player, you want a guy who knows the game and who understands what you’re trying to get done on the defensive side.
“This is his defense, but it also comes to technique. He can tell you what technique he wants you to play. I’ve watched him do that in practice. I thinking, ‘This guy can coach.’ I like that. That’s something that you haven’t had in a long time at Tennessee.”
Q: Was that a lack of knowledge or a lack of respect from the players to do what they told them to do? Either way it’s pretty troubling.
White: “I think both. Attitude affects leadership and the leadership did not do a very good job of leading. A good coach knows how to adjust. If you show me a coach that doesn’t know how to adjust, I’ll show you a coach that is going to be fired in three or four years. You have to learn how to adjust and adjust on the fly. Those are the best coaches in college football. That’s the one thing we don’t know yet about coach Pruitt.
“Can he coach Xs and Os? Absolutely. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve seen in a long time, especially at the University of Tennessee. Now, when it comes to putting that together in a football game, we don’t know that yet. That’s what we’re looking for next. Is he going to be able to do this for an entire football game and entire season in the SEC? He has a tough task in front of him.”
Q: Much has been made of Jeremy Pruitt’s simplistic approach to the defense in that he doesn’t make players think a whole lot. Did you notice that in practice and do you think that’s a good thing?
White: “The defense is a little more complex than what they’ve ever run. Some people may say it’s more simple. I don’t really think so. I think it’s a tough defense. … These guys that are freshmen, I look for them in two years to have the defense down.
“This defense is complex. Some things may start out as zone and change to man. Some things may start out as man and change to zone. That’s very tricky. Certain formations change a defense. Certain routes change the complexity of the defense. Those are things that make Alabama very good.
“If you look at Alabama and what they do, which we run the same type of defense, they run a lot of Cover 1, Cover 3, zone blitz and general man and they’ll mix in a Cover 4 every now and then. If we run those same type of defenses, it’s going to be hard for teams to pick just one thing we’re going to do because we have so many complexities in our defense. … I think (Pruitt) has a good eye for what offenses are trying to do because he’s done it for so long.”
Q: What do you think of the quarterback battle between sophomore Jarrett Guarantano and senior graduate transfer Keller Chryst from Stanford?
White: “I think Guarantano is a really good football player. His completion percentage was down (62 percent), but if you look at some of those passes he threw last season. Some of those passes hit the receiver right where they should have caught it — in the hands. Our guys weren’t catching the ball very well last year. In the spring, they were dropping a lot of balls. There were a lot of balls on the ground at a few of those practices.
“I have watched film of Keller Chryst and I think this kid is a really good football player. If he didn’t get injured, he’d probably still be at Stanford. Now, can he come in and win the job? He has a hard job learning the offense in a few months.
“Guarantano does have the edge there because he learned some of the offense in the spring. The one who studies the most is probably going to be the guy that gets the job.
“I’m not as worried about the quarterback position as I am the offensive line being able to protect them. That’s probably one of the weakest links of our football team right now. That’s something that needs to be addressed. Hopefully we can get those things fixed so these guys can stay upright for a football game.
“The one thing I do like about Guarantano is he took a beating last year and he kept getting up. He has the toughness. Let’s see what he can do if he’s standing upright the entire game.”