“We’re nowhere close to where we want to be,” Pruitt said Friday after opening the first preseason camp of his head coaching career. “We’re not even close to it. But at least we do have an idea. We have an understanding of what we’re trying to get done. That’s probably half the battle.”
The Vols opened preseason practice Friday trying to start a new chapter after a miserable season in which they finished 4-8 and failed to win a Southeastern Conference game for the first time since the league’s formation in 1933. That resulted in the firing of Butch Jones and the hiring of Pruitt, a former Alabama defensive coordinator.
Pruitt is accustomed to working on winning programs. He was on Alabama’s staff for four of its national championship seasons (2009, 2011, 2012 and 2017) and also was Florida State’s defensive coordinator when the Seminoles won the 2013 title.
So he knows how far Tennessee has to go and is making that clear.
His direct approach was apparent at the end of UT’s spring game. In his postgame press conference that day, Pruitt complained that a couple of players “just flat-out quit” and said his players “would probably get about a D” when he was asked to measure how well they’d grasped the new staff’s offense and defense.
Pruitt was more upbeat Friday, at least by his standards.
Tennessee had about 30 more players available Friday who weren’t working out this spring. That group includes three graduate transfers — quarterback Keller Chryst (Stanford), offensive lineman Brandon Kennedy (Alabama) and running back Madre London (Michigan State) — to boost the offense. It also features several key performers who sat out spring practice with injuries as well as the majority of the freshman class.
Pruitt noted Friday that the players who were on campus this spring have had several months to adjust to the new staff and its demands. Those players are now showing some progress.
“The longer they’ve been in the program, the more that they’re used to the expectations that we have, whether it’s in the classroom, study hall, weight room, on the field, how we practice,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt’s staff has plenty of issues to sort out before Tennessee opens the season on Saturday, Sept. 1 against West Virginia at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
The Vols must settle on a starting quarterback; incumbent Jarrett Guarantano will attempt to hold off challenges from Chryst, sophomore Will McBride and freshman JT Shrout.
The Vols also must search for the right combinations on an offensive line that has gained strength after being decimated by injuries last season.
That offensive line represents one area in particular that has received a boost since the spring. Kennedy joins a line that also has Chance Hall coming back from a knee injury that sidelined him throughout the 2017 season as well as 2018 spring practice. Trey Smith should return to contact around Aug. 19-20 after missing spring practice to deal with blood clots in his lungs.
“We’ve got to develop some depth there, but at least we’ve got numbers,” Pruitt said. “That would be a start.
“In the spring, we didn’t have numbers. At least we have a few more now.”