By Alex Norman
It’s an annual rite of passage… and the first true sign that college football season isn’t that far away. For Jeremy Pruitt, the new Tennessee coach, SEC Media Days was a chance to show Vols fans that he’s not very concerned about the recent past.
The past decade has obviously been filled with many more lows than highs for the Tennessee football program. Pruitt believes that the program is moving in the right direction.
“The only thing I can assess is the last six months,” Pruitt told reporters in Atlanta on July 18th. “I wasn’t at Tennessee the last ten years. I’ve been there for six months. Right now I’d say that from the top down, from the boosters, the fan base, the players, everybody involved in the program, we’re all running in the same direction, and we’re running as fast as we can. So I think that’s what it takes, and that’s all we’re worried about.”
Pruitt added, “My goal is to help put a football team on the field that they (the fan base) can be proud of by the way they play with their toughness, their effort, the way they play together. They play smart. No matter what’s on the score board, when they leave the stadium, they say you know what, that’s our team. That’s what I want to give to our fan base.”
Pruitt brought three players to Atlanta: junior wide receiver Marquez Callaway, senior defensive lineman Kyle Phillips and junior tight end Eli Wolf. Phillips had been named the most improved player on defense and Wolf the most improved player on offense following spring practice. Pruitt is looking for similar effort from the rest of his roster.
“When we started spring, Eli probably couldn’t block me,” Pruitt said. “And by the time spring was over with, Eli had learned to string and tried to finish and really done a good job. If we can get everybody to compete and play with the effort and toughness and intensity that Eli was playing with maybe the last seven or eight practices, we’re going to be fine. As far as the culture, to me, it’s about expectations. You know, there’s a bunch of different ways to do it. I think it’s important that everything in the organization is defined. It’s clear. Everybody has an understanding. And if somebody’s not meeting the expectations, you got to be able to confront them and get it fixed or they’re going to continue to do the same thing.”
“He is a motivator, and he demands the most out of his players,” said Wolf. “So I know if we buy into what he is saying, we can really achieve a lot together.”
“When Coach Pruitt came in and talked to us in December, he definitely told us to just think about the little things, like the details, discipline, playing the full quarter,” said Phillips. “It is really not as much about the team as it is about the details that really separate you from being great. Because in this conference, everybody is talented, but it is the details that could separate the good teams, the bad teams, the great teams, and the teams that win national championships and the teams that do not. That is what we have been focusing on this offseason, and that is what we are going to keep on doing.”
Everyone always wants to know about the quarterback situation. Redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano and sophomore Will McBride are back again. Grad transfer Keller Chryst and true freshman J.T. Shrout are in the mix as well. While Guarantano and Chryst are the favorites to get the first snap against West Virginia on September 1st, it sounds like the coaching staff doesn’t want to wait very long to make a decision.
“I think it’s going to be important for us as a staff to start whittling it down pretty fast so we can kind of create rhythm and timing and a little bit of chemistry on offense and figure out who our guys are going to be,” said Pruitt.
The 1990s and early 2000s were a glorious time for Tennessee football. Most of the players on the Vols roster were toddlers back then. The goal is to get the Vols back in that conversation.
“Coach Pruitt told us that he remembered Tennessee being the top team in the SEC and in the country,” said Callaway. “He kept telling us he planned on bringing the University back to where it belongs.”