KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt believes his team can benefit from the lessons he learned in his debut season as a head coach.
Pruitt said he spent so much time last year concentrating on big-picture issues for the long-term health of the program that he didn’t build close enough relationships with the players. He made an effort to correct that problem this offseason.
“Just based off time naturally you’re going to have more of a relationship,” Pruitt said. “We know each other. I’m satisfied that our players know the expectations every single day with whatever presents itself in our program. We know our guys. We know where their strengths are, where their weaknesses are and we’ve been able to build on that in the offseason.”
Tennessee is counting on that improved familiarity with Pruitt to help the Volunteers return to relevance. Tennessee went 5-7 in Pruitt’s debut year while posting a second straight last-place finish in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.
The Vols are still dealing with change. Pruitt brought in new coordinators on both sides of the ball and also brought in new receivers coach Tee Martin, the quarterback of Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team. Pruitt and his staff have combined to either play or coach on 16 national championship teams.
“Having Pruitt here a second year here makes me even more hungry because I know what he wants as a coach,” wide receiver Jauan Jennings said. “This whole coaching staff is nothing but winners. We just need that to carry on through the whole team.”
Tennessee’s fourth offensive coordinator in as many seasons is Jim Chaney, who held the same position at Georgia the last three years. Derrick Ansley is Tennessee’s third defensive coordinator in the last three years.
Even amid all that upheaval, Tennessee believes it will benefit because players have a better idea what to expect from Pruitt.
Outside linebackers coach Chris Rumph uses a real estate analogy to make that point. Rumph said when he bought his house last year, he would turn the lights off and bump into walls because of his unfamiliarity with the place. Now that he’s had a year to adjust, he’s more comfortable at home.
“It’s the same thing with those guys,” Rumph said. “They know what to expect. Now we can really coach and teach ball instead of just the little things we had to do last year.”
Here are some things to watch with Tennessee this year:
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano gets sacked too often and is only 6-12 as a starter, but his ability to avoid turnovers gives Tennessee reason for confidence. Guarantano has just five interceptions in 385 career pass attempts. Guarantano will be throwing to an experienced receiving corps featuring Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer.
TAYLOR’S PASS RUSH
Outside linebacker Darrell Taylor had eight sacks last season, the highest total of any returning SEC player. Seven of those sacks came against Georgia and Kentucky. Tennessee has nobody else who collected more than two sacks a year ago.
QUESTIONS ON THE LINE
Tennessee has no returning starters on the defensive line and lost its most experienced player at that spot when Emmit Gooden tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during preseason camp. The offensive line has plenty of experience but a poor track record over the last two seasons.
Tennessee’s new offensive coordinator has a reputation for getting the best from his quarterbacks, including stints working with Drew Brees at Purdue and Nathan Peterman at Pittsburgh. Chaney’s presence could help Guarantano produce a big season. “Me and him have a good relationship,” Guarantano said. “He’s always joking around, but when it’s time to get serious, I tell him to coach me as hard as he can.”
CHANGES ON DEFENSE
After making all the defensive calls last year, Pruitt says he’s ceding those responsibilities to Ansley this season.
Ansley was Alabama’s defensive backs coach in 2016-17 when Pruitt was the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator.