“We want to see who the competitors are,” Pruitt said Tuesday after Tennessee completed its first practice. “We want to see who handles adversity.”
Pruitt, the former Alabama defensive coordinator, has taken over a program that went 4-8 last season while setting a school record for losses and failing to win a single Southeastern Conference game.
The roster suffered some offseason losses when running back John Kelly, defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie and defensive back Rashaan Gaulden opted to bypass their senior seasons to enter the NFL draft. Kelly was the Vols’ leading rusher and Gaulden arguably was their top defender.
Tennessee announced one more departure Tuesday: reserve defensive lineman Quay Picou left the team, Pruitt said.
That leaves the Vols with much work to do before the April 21 spring game.
“I told the kids this,” Pruitt said. “You get 15 practices. Today was our first day, and we’re never going to get it back. I hope everybody out there who’s on the field took advantage of their opportunities.”
Pruitt said his spring objectives include making sure his players come together as a team and learn how to practice the right way. Pruitt also wants to see how much knowledge each position group can retain.
He says his practice sessions will have each player getting the same workload. Pruitt says that’s the same approach he’s seen in his previous stops as an assistant at Alabama, Florida State and Georgia.
“Whether you’re a freshman, whether the guy’s an All-SEC player or the guy’s a walk-on, everybody gets the same amount of reps and we’re going to coach them all the same way,” Pruitt said.
Tennessee has plenty of questions on both sides of the ball.
Spring practice gives quarterback Jarrett Guarantano a chance to make an impression on the new coaching staff before Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst arrives this summer. Guarantano started six of Tennessee’s final seven games last season as a redshirt freshman and completed 61.9 percent of his passes for 997 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Vols lack healthy offensive linemen and won’t have Trey Smith available for spring practice because he’s dealing with an unspecified medical issue.
On defense, Tennessee must replace departed starting cornerbacks Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley while finding which players best fit the 3-4 scheme Pruitt prefers. Tennessee ran a 4-3 defense under former coach Butch Jones, who was fired after going 34-27 in five seasons.
Pruitt said he’d spend the majority of Tennessee’s practice time working with the defense. Pruitt adds that he’s spending more time in the meeting rooms of the offense than the defense because he’s more familiar with his defensive assistants, having worked with most of them before.
“When the football starts, I’m a defensive coach, so I’m going to spend most of my time on the defensive side,” Pruitt said. “When we watch tape, we’ll watch it as a staff and I’ll sit there and I can see what the offense is doing, and if I have questions, I’ll ask and have a good understanding of what they’re trying to get done.”
Pruitt saw signs of encouragement on the opening day of practice.
“I saw some guys who improved in their technique just as practice went (on) today,” he said. “I’ll be excited to jump up here and watch some tape.”