What does success look like in Year 2 of the Jeremy Pruitt era? Let's define that
Picture this. It’s March 2020. Tennessee’s 2019 season is in the books and Jeremy Pruitt is entering Year 3. But before he moves forward, he must look back and answer a simple, yet complicated question.
What does success look like in 2019?
It’s not as simple as breaking down wins and losses (I’ll get to that later). I realize for some, that’s all that’s going to matter. But as we’ve seen in years past with Tennessee, not all 9-win seasons are created equal. Just because a certain win total is hit doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s being built the right way.
There can be some pretty severe cracks in the foundation that makes the future outlook murky at best. Heading into Year 3, that would be the last thing Pruitt wants from his team.
That’s why it’s a multi-faceted answer that has a lot of areas to be evaluated. It’s the offseason, so we’ve got the time to do said evaluation of what success looks like.
The running game just needs to get to mediocrity
A lot of this discussion will focus on specific areas of improvement, and not just making baby steps. For example, going from the nation’s No. 113 rushing offense to No. 100 is technically improvement, but will that show the Vols are on the rise? Not exactly.
In my opinion, that’s where Tennessee needs the most help. Better offense will take an inconsistent team to the next level. Pruitt has been on a mission to revamp the offensive line. Certainly adding a pair of 5-star recruits at that position will help. Getting Trey Smith back and healthy would also help, though that’s up in the air given the seriousness of his condition.
Still, the Vols need to at least be mediocre running the football in 2019. That means a ground game in the top 60 nationally. The SEC teams who finished outside the top 60 last year were Vanderbilt (No. 66), Auburn (No. 68), Ole Miss (No. 72), South Carolina (No. 91), Arkansas (No. 98) and of course dead-last Tennessee (No. 113).
I thought Auburn, South Carolina and Tennessee all had similar offensive issues last year. They didn’t have a home-run play running back to make some rather subpar offensive line play look better than it was (it’s not a good sign when your lead back goes 6 consecutive games without a rush of 20 yards).
On top of that, their offenses were predicated on the short passing game. Too much, one might say. As a result, they didn’t really have much margin for error. A Jeremy Banks fumble here, a missed assignment on a Ty Chandler run there and the Vols were back to square one.
I have to think that a backfield that returns the vast majority of its production and adds talented early enrollee Eric Gray will improve under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. And yes, Chaney was criticized for wanting to throw too much at Georgia, but the Dawgs still had a top 20 rushing attack each of the past 2 years.
Last year, Florida had a similar situation with most of its ground game returning and it improved by 57 rushing yards per game. An improvement that significant would move Tennessee into the top 50 nationally (based on 2018 totals). That’d be a good place to start.
Jarrett Guarantano taking the next step
I feel like we’ve been having this conversation for a while about Guarantano. Last year, there were moments when it looked like he was one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks (the Auburn game was still one of the best individual performances by an SEC quarterback last year).
This is the type of throw that Guarantano, who clearly isn’t afraid to hang tough in the pocket after all the hits he’s taken, needs to make on a more consistent basis in 2019:
There were also moments when it looked like he was a sitting duck (the Vandy game was not one of the best individual performances by an SEC quarterback last year).
And look, I get it. Chaney will be Guarantano’s fourth coordinator in as many seasons in Knoxville. He’ll have a new offense with new verbiage to learn. The hope is that Chaney will turn him loose, just as he did more with Jake Fromm last year. There’s more freedom for Guarantano to make those decisions at the line of scrimmage, but it’s up to him to shift the right protections or see where his first read should be.
You’d also like to see a bit more gunslinger mentality from him. He should be able to fit balls into tighter windows by now. There should be some more confidence with his receivers to attack downfield or to take a calculated risk on third down.
Guarantano only threw 3 interceptions last year, which is a bit two-fold. Obviously you don’t want that number to skyrocket, but if he’s making more big time throws, you’ll take some of the bad that comes along with that.
If Guarantano takes that next step and becomes a top 5 quarterback in the SEC, that’d be as big of an individual victory as any for Tennessee next year.
Pruitt’s defensive identity establishes itself
Half the SEC finished in the top 40 nationally defending the run last year. Not surprisingly, all 7 of those teams won at least 8 games. Tennessee wasn’t very far behind at No. 52 nationally.
Considering Pruitt took over the nation’s No. 126 run defense in 2017, that was a massive improvement. A defense that returns 75 percent of its production from a year ago (No. 25 nationally) should be in for more improvement, especially after adding the likes of blue chip linebacker recruits Quavaris Crouch and Henry To’oto’o.
It’s not like the Vols just lost a ton of talent to the NFL, either. It’s a different situation than when Pruitt was a coordinator at Alabama, Florida State and Georgia. There were obviously more playmakers on that group. Can Nigel Warrior and Darrell Taylor become impact guys like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Leonard Floyd were in Pruitt’s defenses? Certainly that would be successful for Tennessee.
It’s similar to the issues on the offensive side of the ball with lacking home run hitters. Can Tennessee find those playmakers to halt a drive and completely flip the momentum of a game?
It’ll still need to be improvement across the board. There’s a reason that Pruitt was so unhappy with his team’s defensive effort in last year’s spring game. There’s also a reason he was brought to tears after seeing how well it performed in the first 55 minutes against Georgia.
So what would be successful? Tennessee faced 9 Power 5 teams in 2018. Six of them hit 38 points. Cutting that number in half would be a major step in the right direction.
Embarrassment kept at a minimum
No, Tennessee’s 2018 season wasn’t as embarrassing as the final year of the Butch Jones era. The Kentucky and Auburn wins were huge, and the aforementioned effort against Georgia was promising.
But it still had embarrassing moments such as:
- 6 turnovers in blowout home loss to Florida
- Quart’e Sapp quits during middle of blowout home loss to Florida
- 28-0 first quarter deficit at home vs. Alabama
- Scoreless in final 3 quarters vs. 5-7 Charlotte
- Outscored 88-30 by Mizzou, Vandy to close season
- Lost third straight game to Vandy by double digits
So yeah, some embarrassment is going to happen. That much embarrassment is probably not ideal. Granted, it’s not like those things held Pruitt back from signing an elite class (No. 12 nationally). Just for escaping the narrative that Tennessee is still in the SEC basement, though, those embarrassing moments need to see a significant decrease.
What about the final record?
Ah, the most important thing. I’ve gone back and forth on this because while I believe the Vols will improve, it’s still a schedule that features all 8 games against SEC teams that made the postseason last year. Obviously success is more than just hitting the 6-win mark.
Vegas set the over/under for Tennessee’s regular season win total at 7. In my opinion, that would be simply meeting expectations for a schedule that while difficult, also doesn’t feature a Power 5 opponent in nonconference play. Tennessee could theoretically go 3-5 in SEC play and still hit that mark. I’m not sure that would be universally considered a success after consecutive seasons of missing a bowl game.
So, here are a few final marks that would really define success in Year 2 of the Pruitt era:
- 8-4 regular season record
- New Year’s Day bowl
- 4-4 record in SEC play
- Multiple weeks spent in Associated Press Top 25
- At least 2 wins over teams in FINAL AP Top 25
- Even total scoring margin in SEC play
Oh, and one other thing.
Avoid a fourth consecutive loss to Vandy.