(This is the first in a four-part series on what SEC coaches said about other SEC programs. Coaches agreed to speak on the condition their names be withheld. The first installment: A look at Tennessee.)
By Jimmy Hyams
When Jeremy Pruitt was hired as Tennessee’s coach Dec. 7, 2017, the program was in shambles.
The Vols had just recorded their first winless season in the SEC, going 0-8.
The team had lost eight games in a season for the first time in history.
UT’s talent level was closer to that of Vanderbilt than Florida or Georgia or Alabama.
In fact, Vanderbilt had won two in a row over Tennessee despite the Commodores having a losing record in each of those seasons.
“People really probably grossly underestimate the state of the talent pool that was inherited by Jeremy Pruitt,’’ said one SEC coach.
Indeed, with rare exception, Tennessee’s talent had declined dramatically. Over a five-year period, UT didn’t have a player drafted three times. UT had a player selected each year from 1964 to 2014 until that recent drought.
While Tennessee’s personnel more resembled the 50th best team in the country, it is now closer to a top 25 program.
“Jeremy has really done a good job with the talent that was available and getting them on the same page, and then recruiting each year to improve the roster,’’ one SEC coach said.
UT has indeed improved the talent and has a top five ranked recruiting class for 2021, although signing date is months away.
Another coach was more blunt about the state of the Vols’ program.
“People forget how bad Tennessee was when Jeremy walked into that door.’’ the coach said. “It was the worst Tennessee team in my lifetime: the first to lose eight games in a season and go winless in the SEC.’’
Pruitt has been credited with upgrading and developing the talent.
And, it appears, he has improved his staff. Only three original members of his first staff remain at Rocky Top, and he lured one of the SEC’s top assistants.
“Probably the biggest thing he’s done since he’s been head coach is hire (offensive coordinator) Jim Chaney (away from Georgia),’’ one coach said, adding that he thinks Chaney is the best offensive coordinator in the SEC.
If Tennessee wants to take a step forward from its 8-5 season that included a bowl win, it must get better play from the quarterback position.
“Their quarterback (Jarrett Guarantano) has got talent and he’s a competitor,’’ one coach said. “That’s the thing that jumps out when you watch him. He’s very, very competitive and competes at a high level. But he’s got to get more consistent.’’
Guarantano’s lack of consistency caused him to get benched multiple times last season, including during the bowl win. But he has managed to enter in relief and help the Vols win several games with his second-half play.
Guarantano should get help with what promises to be Tennessee’s best offensive line in at least eight years.
“I think their offensive line will be pretty good,’’ one coach said. “If they get good play from the quarterback and running backs, they’ll be good.’’