Knoxville, Tenn.—College football is not a very complicated game.
The team with the best players usually wins.
Given that, it’s pretty easy to understand why Tennessee has spent most of the past 10 years in the college football wilderness.
Tennessee is currently on its fourth head coach (Jeremy Pruitt) since forcing Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer out the door after the 2008 season. Only once in the past decade have the Volunteers finished better than 4-4 in the SEC (5-3 in 2015).
Fulmer, who won a national championship in 1998, is now the director of athletics at Tennessee. Last week, on the eve of the NFL Draft, I sat in his office and we discussed the real possibility that Tennessee would not have a single player drafted in the seven rounds. That’s a total of 224 players chosen with none—ZERO--coming from Tennessee.
It happened. In fact, last week marked the THIRD time in five years that Tennessee did not have a player drafted.
“At Tennessee? Are you kidding me?” said Fulmer. “That’s a great tell-tale sign of where we are.”
Contrast Tennessee’s dearth of talent to what has happened the past five seasons at three of Tennessee’s biggest rivals: Alabama, Florida, and Georgia:
NFL DRAFT PICKS THE PAST FIVE YEARS
So it’s simple: Some highly-ranked recruiting classes and players brought in during this period didn’t pan out because of injury, transfers, lack of development, constantly changing systems and a failure to correctly evaluate talent on the front end of the process.
What Tennessee fans want to know now is this: As the Vols approach their second season under Jeremy Pruitt, is there reason to believe that things are going to get better?
There was both good and bad in Pruitt’s first season (5-7, 2-6 SEC) in Knoxville. The good was a 30-24 win at No. 21 Auburn and then a 24-7 domination of No. 11 Kentucky in Knoxville. That victory put the Volunteers at 5-5 and cracked the door open for a possible bowl game, which was one of the big preseason goals.
But Tennessee didn’t close the deal, losing 50-17 at Missouri at Neyland Stadium and then 38-13 at Vanderbilt. It was Tennessee’s third straight loss to the Commodores, who have beaten The Vols in five of the past seven meetings.
That finish gave Pruitt a lot to think about in the off-season.
“There were really two things,” Pruitt said as we sat in his office last week. “There were several games where we didn’t give ourselves a chance based on mental errors. That goes back to communication from the coaching staff to the players.”
Mental errors can be fixed, said Pruitt.
Then there was this:
“There were a couple of games that toward the end we didn’t possibly have the same fight that we had earlier in the year.
“You fight for the things that you believe in.”
Pruitt said it is his job to communicate better with his players so that they buy in to what he’s selling.
“I spent a whole lot of time in the first six months on this job here trying to get things the way that I wanted them to be in the future,” said Pruitt. “I was trying to fix a lot of things from an administrative standpoint. I didn’t spend enough time with our players. So I learned a valuable lesson this past year.”
Accordingly, there have been changes:
When offensive coordinator Tyson Helton left to become the head coach at Western Kentucky, Pruitt reached out to Jim Chaney of Georgia and basically doubled his salary with a three-year deal worth $4.8 million.
“If you’re going to have some success in this league you need people with experience of who you’re going against,” Pruitt said of Chaney, who is on his second tour of duty at Tennessee and also coached at Arkansas. “I thought he was the best guy out there.”
Pruitt also dipped into the NFL ranks to hire Derrick Ansley as his defensive coordinator. Ansley had previously worked with Pruitt at Alabama and will take over the defensive play-calling from the head coach.
“I think that shows maturity,” said Fulmer, who applauded the move. “He realized he needed to look at the bigger picture.”
Pruitt also brought back favorite son Tee Martin, the quarterback on the 1998 national championship team, as wide receivers coach. Chris Weinke, the 2000 Heisman Trophy winner, has been moved to quarterbacks coach. Working with Chaney (who developed Drew Brees at Purdue) and Weinke will only help starter Jarrett Guarantano.
Pruitt followed up all this change with a recruiting class ranked No. 11 by ESPN.com. A bunch of those guys will have to play early, especially on the offensive line.
“We finally have enough depth so we can go out the practice the right way,” said Pruitt. “If we add 25 more we’ll have the depth we need.”
Pruitt said that of the 15 spring practices, “14 of them were really good. That practice and competition improved us as a football team.
“How much? We’ll find out this fall.”
Bottom line: Tennessee still has a long way to go to seriously compete for the SEC East championship.
It's all about the players and the Vols need a lot more of them.