Jeremy Pruitt didn’t even wait to leave the stadium before making his pitch to potential recruits.
Following Tennessee’s season-ending loss to Vanderbilt last Saturday in Nashville, Pruitt used his postgame meeting with the media to spread the word about the program’s need for players.
“If a young man wants an opportunity to have a chance to play in the SEC really early, this would be a good place to start,” Pruitt said.
Plagued by inconsistency and lack of depth, Pruitt’s first season at Tennessee came to a frustrating end.
With two chances to become bowl eligible, the Vols (5-7, 2-6) were blown out by Missouri and Vanderbilt in back-to-back weeks and will miss the postseason for the second consecutive year.
Tennessee’s 38-13 loss to Vanderbilt marked the third consecutive season the Vols lost to their in-state rival, something that hadn’t happened since the Commodores won six straight in the series from 1920-26.
Along with hitting the road in search of recruits to inject some hope into the program, Pruitt will also need to find a new offensive coordinator after Tyson Helton was named the head coach at Western Kentucky on Monday.
Pruitt knew changing the culture at Tennessee wouldn’t be easy. He inherited a team that set a school record for losses last year by finishing 4-8 and 0-8 in the SEC.
The Vols showed glimpses of potential during the season but couldn’t sustain the momentum from game to game or within many games. Tennessee had solid wins over Auburn and Kentucky, which were ranked at the time. But the Vols also lost by 25 points or more six times this season.
Even after their victories, Pruitt expressed disappointment with the work ethic of some players. Being able to challenge them wasn’t always possible without others ready to take their spots.
“We’ve got a few guys that, you know, are working hard to improve. We’ve just got to get competition,” Pruitt explained. “When a guy don’t practice the right way, you need to have somebody else to put in. If a guy don’t play the right way in the game, you need to have somebody else to put in.
“What happens is, if you’ve got competition, you fix all these things in spring ball and fall camp and all that, because there’s only one way to do it and you create the right habits.”
Tennessee senior defensive end Kyle Phillips sensed the growing pains the program was enduring while transitioning to a new staff.
“We definitely have a young team with some new faces trying to embrace the new culture that this coaching staff is trying to bring to us, and everybody wasn’t bought in,” Phillips says. “That’s what happens when everybody’s not bought in. That’s when you get inconsistent play.”
The Vols bring back most of their offensive playmakers, including quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, running back Ty Chandler and wide receivers Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings.
They will need to improve along the offensive line, which struggled to give Guarantano time in the pocket and open up holes for the running game.
The health of sophomore Trey Smith will be paramount. The former five-star recruit from Jackson missed spring practice while recovering from blood clots in his lungs. After appearing in seven games, Smith was sidelined indefinitely once the blood clots returned.
The Vols began the spring with just five scholarship offensive linemen, and experimented throughout the season with different combinations.
“Last spring, we did the best we possibly could,” Pruitt adds. “It was as far away from a real spring practice as it could possibly get. We will have enough bodies this spring to have a full spring practice. That’ll make us better. We’ll have competition. We’ll have to fight.”
Defensively, the Vols will lose several starters to graduation. They have something to build on in the secondary with true freshmen Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson receiving a trial by fire while starting at cornerback from most of the season.
Reaching a bowl game would have allowed Tennessee’s staff extra practices to continue developing players and instilling Pruitt’s philosophy and values.
Despite the unsatisfactory ending, Pruitt sees some progress.
“I thought over the course of the season we improved tremendously how we practice,” Pruitt points out. “You should have seen us in the spring. Where we were at, there was nowhere to go but up. We made a lot of strides. We still don’t have competition.”
But Pruitt, the former Alabama defensive coordinator, knows from experience just how much ground the Vols need to cover to become SEC contenders again.
“Lord knows we got a long ways to go,” he admits.