KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt says he has the best staff in the nation after adding a pair of coordinators who will make a combined $2.5 million this year.
The Volunteers are hoping that big investment will enable them to end their two-year residence in the basement of the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.
Tennessee opens preseason camp Friday looking to bounce back from two straight losing seasons. Tennessee went 5-7 last fall in Pruitt’s debut season, and only one of its seven losses was decided by fewer than 25 points.
Pruitt responded by overhauling his staff, including the additions of Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator and Derrick Ansley as defensive coordinator. Tee Martin, the quarterback of Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team, also joined the staff as a wide receivers coach.
“A lot of people say, ‘I’ve got the best coaching staff in the country,’ well most of the people that say it haven’t been a part of the staffs that I’ve been a part of, which has been some really good ones over the years,” said Pruitt, a former defensive coordinator at Alabama, Georgia and Florida State.
“I truly believe the men on our staff - and I told them this this morning - when you talk about teaching, recruiting, relationships, character, all the intangibles that come with being a football coach, I truly believe that we do have the best staff in the country.”
Tennessee lured Chaney away from Georgia with a contract that will pay him $1.5 million.
Ansley, a longtime college assistant who spent last season as an Oakland Raiders defensive backs coach, will earn $1 million this year.
That well-paid staff will earn its money this year as it tries to rebuild a Tennessee program that has gone a combined 9-15 over the last two seasons. Pruitt says the Vols must improve their toughness as they prepare for their Aug. 31 opener with Georgia State.
“One thing that we really need to focus on in fall camp is just hard-core fundamentals, knowing what to do, how to do it and why it’s important to do it that way,” Pruitt said. “I’ve never been around a really good football player or a great team if they didn’t have toughness - physical and mental toughness. You’ve got to train that way. It’s got to become a habit for you, and it’s something we really need to focus on.”
The biggest challenges for Chaney and Ansley are at the line of scrimmage.
Chaney must upgrade an offensive line that has struggled the last two years while discovering whether heralded freshman tackles Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright are ready to contribute immediately. Ansley takes over a defense that doesn’t return a single starting lineman.
“If you’re not good in the trenches in the SEC, you’re going to have a hard day’s work,” Ansley said.
The Vols could get a major boost at defensive tackle if Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon plays this season. The NCAA still hasn’t informed Tennessee whether Solomon will be granted a waiver enabling him to play this year rather than sitting out a season.
The offensive line would get a huge lift if Trey Smith returns to action after blood clots in his lungs sidelined him for the final five games last season. Smith’s status remains uncertain.
“Trey has expressed that he wants to play football,” Pruitt said. “Our doctors have kind of collaborated with everybody across the country, a lot of specialists, to figure out a plan to give him an opportunity to be able to do that.”
NOTES: Pruitt said Georgia transfer Deangelo Gibbs likely will sit out this season before making his Tennessee debut next fall. Pruitt said the Vols still must decide on a position for Gibbs, who worked out at both wide receiver and defensive back this spring. ... Pruitt said Kurott Garland’s decision to enter the transfer portal doesn’t necessarily mean the defensive lineman is definitely leaving Tennessee. “We’ll let that situation play out and we’ll see where it goes,” Pruitt said.