Take a Look: Pruitt’s Precision Key for New System in Year Two
Jeremy Pruitt’s football acumen is beyond question, it is simply a fact. His resume’ as a coach speaks for itself. Pruitt has long been one of the best defensive minds in college football, and he is a master at identifying, recruiting, developing, and teaching defensive backs in particular. He has been a defensive coordinator for National Champions at different schools, proving that he is capable of high-level success outside of Nick Saban. He has been the coordinator for multiple defenses that have lived in the top ten nationally at multiple schools. Pruitt is widely regarded as one of the best recruiters in the nation, having won the honor of National Recruiter of the Year as an assistant as well. When he arrived at Tennessee, Pruitt was able to sign one of the best groups of assistant coaches in the nation, even as a first-year head coach, due in large part to how much he is respected by other coaches across the nation. This past offseason, Pruitt made a few changes to the staff and, by all accounts, has improved it even further. The man knows what good football players look like, and he knows what good football coaches look like. He’s been able to bring a fair number of both to Rocky Top in a very short time. Pruitt has risen throughout his career, learning from great coaches he was working under, to develop and grow into ever higher roles. At Tennessee, though he is now the head coach, he has stated many times that he has a close relationship with and feels comfortable learning from legendary Tennessee coach and now Athletic Direction Phillip Fulmer. Pruitt is a coach’s coach, a football junkie that loves everything about the sport and should be able to learn and grow on the field as he needs to. However, it was never Jeremy Pruitt’s football acumen that was a question.
A small portion of what Pruitt needed to learn was how to be the face of a program. Last season it was evident at many points that Pruitt would have much rather been breaking down film than talking with the media. He is an honest man, so he never really made much effort to hide that fact from anyone. Though there is nothing wrong with that, and his honesty is certainly a breath of fresh air, Pruitt didn’t look comfortable for much of last season addressing the media. In one season, Pruitt has already made a dramatic improvement in that area. At SEC Media Days, Pruitt looked comfortable in his role. More than that, he looked and sounded confident as he gave his answers and interacted with the media. Much like Pruitt has learned on the job and improved in his coaching career, he did the same in one year with the media. He has shown easy confidence that has felt infectious at times this offseason, at ease with his situation and what he was doing. None of this is new to him anymore, and Pruitt looks more comfortable in all of his responsibilities this season already.
The larger question that last season left about Jeremy Pruitt as a coach was in his ability to motivate his team. During stints and Alabama, Florida State, and Georgia, Pruitt was coaching defenses that were competing for National Titles under some of the most respected coaches of the modern era. Pruitt didn’t necessarily have to motivate these teams. Every game was important because they were playing in the national spotlight with a shot at a National Championship on the line in every game. There were also the highly respected head coaches he was working under that knew how to get teams ready to play. Pruitt indeed helped with that process, but the question remains to how much he could do on his own with a different situation? Last season, aside from the South Carolina and Georgia games, when Tennessee lost, they were crushed. Tennessee looked terrible in an early-season match up with Florida, where the team did little to nothing right, looked incapable of carrying out the basic fundamentals, and frankly looked disinterested for much of the game. Against Vanderbilt in the season finale, with a bowl berth on the line, the Vols showed no signs of a pulse outside of a seventy-five-yard touchdown run by Ty Chandler. Again, Tennessee looked disinterested during the entire game. Vanderbilt outplayed, outcoached, and out wanted the Vols in every phase of the game, which led to a blowout loss, a third straight loss to Vandy for the first time in nearly a century, and another year of missing the postseason. The questions have been fairly asked about Pruitt’s ability to motivate his team and have them ready to play. They came out on multiple occasions last season and laid absolute eggs, falling flat, often at home, in games that they desperately needed. How much of this is to blame on Pruitt? Well, Pruitt has stated it is his job to get the team ready to play, but it is also fair to state that many holdovers from the Butch Jones era were not ready for the type of program that Pruitt put in place.
Jones coached one of the mentally softest teams in Tennessee history in his last season, and he very clearly lost the locker room in 2017 and for large portions of 2016 as well. For some of these players, quitting on a coach or team when things were bad and not what they wanted was all they had known and seen in their college careers. Some rose and responded to harder coaching and being held accountable, while others crumbled and shut everything out. Pruitt made no bones throughout the 2018 season that he felt he needed his type of guys on Rocky Top to be successful. While that is likely a true statement, it may not inspire the most inspired, motivated performances from the players currently on the roster. How Pruitt motivates and prepares his players will be the major step to watch in his progression as a coach. He may not have the talent to compete with some of the teams on his schedule yet, but his Vols need to play them tough and at least play hard and fight to the end this season. Pruitt will also have many of his guys in the starting lineup this year. Though this is only the start of his second season at Tennessee, as many as 13 of his 22 opening day starters will have been brought into Tennessee by Pruitt, with some of the 9 holdovers being players that have worked hard and thrived under their new coach.
Jeremy Pruitt has a vision for what he wants Tennessee to be, as well as a plan for bringing that vision to fruition. He knows the kind of coaches he wants, the style of offense and defense, and the players he needs to execute them. He has recruited well and brought in those players, quickly putting his fingerprints all over the Tennessee roster. Pruitt has improved in every facet of being a head coach in his second offseason. Now the focus is on seeing if he can continue that pattern and develop himself further once the games start this fall. If Pruitt can answer the questions that still surround him as a young head coach and improve, he has a chance to lay an impressive foundation at Tennessee. He has a very solid recruiting class already in 2020 and has Tennessee in a great position with several of the top prospects in the country. A winning season and growth from the many young starters he will have this season could have the Vols in an excellent position entering 2020, and with a team that is being built to be successful over the long haul.
Senior Recruiting Analyst
Brandon Martin is from the mountains of southeast Tennessee, a proud alumnus of ETSU, and has ended up living in Nashville after stints in Memphis and the Tri-Cities.
Football season takes him all over the Southeast, covering games in the Nashville-Middle Tennessee region, East Tennessee, Memphis-West Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia. He covers all things UT with a focus on Recruiting and Tennessee Basketball. If you see him at a game, please, come say hello.