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After one of the strangest coaching searches ever, how will Jeremy Pruitt actually do at Tennessee?

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Pruitt wasn’t UT’s first choice, but if his cranky, Saban-like demeanor produces Saban-like results, no one’s gonna care.

Sports: Tennessee Practice
Jeremy Pruitt
Caitie McMekin-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

It was a strange experience, writing about the Butch Jones era at Tennessee. On one hand, he brought the program forward for a while, pulling off the Volunteers’ first two nine-win seasons and ranked finishes since Phil Fulmer was sent packing more than a decade earlier.

On the other hand, you could see coaching decisions holding things back from being better than 9-4. The Vols blew a series of leads in 2015, in part because of extreme offensive conservatism. They led in the second half of all those losses, including by double digits in three of them.

Late in 2016, when the UT defense was wrecked by injury, he unleashed quarterback Josh Dobbs, who threw for 1,077 yards and rushed for 508 in the last four games of his career. UT averaged 46 points in that span, leaving you to wonder why the hell Jones didn’t unleash Dobbs sooner.

Every positive had a twinge of regret. And that was before the outright disaster that was 2017.

The ifs in my 2017 Tennessee preview were pretty straightforward:

Turnover has led to lowered expectations this season, but if the Vols find a quarterback and deal with fewer injuries, they could make a nice go of 2017.

Those ifs did not come to pass. Jones waffled on his quarterback situation (as he was wont to do), an injury took away the most proven receiving threat and defensive back as the season began, and the linebacking corps was a M*A*S*H unit. We never got to see the two-deep Jones intended to field, and all of his most anxious traits were on display.

The Vols made the wrong kind of history, both going winless in SEC play and losing eight games in a season for the first time.

And then, after one of the strangest, most polarizing soap operas in the history of coaching searches, UT ended up making a trade of sorts with Alabama, hiring Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as head coach and sending Jones to Tuscaloosa as an analyst.

Hiring coaches for their Nick Saban DNA has mostly failed for SEC schools. Coaches like Derek Dooley (Tennessee), Jim McElwain (Florida), etc., didn’t last very long, but the coordinator whom Pruitt replaced a couple of years ago (Kirby Smart) damn near beat Saban for the national title in 2017. That makes setting expectations hard.

So does what I’ll call Pruitt’s divisive personality. He comes off as abrasive and anti-social, and former Georgia stars Aaron Murray and David Pollack recently complained about how he treated his boss, Mark Richt, as UGA coordinator a few years ago.

If Pruitt fails, we will hear stories about his crankiness. But if he wins, a less-than-pleasant demeanor won’t matter. Saban isn’t sunshine and moonbeams, but Bama fans seem to tolerate him pretty well.

One thing is certain: Pruitt does not inherit what Smart inherited in Athens. We should set the bar lower than “national runner-up in year two.” For that matter, we shouldn’t set a bar at all for 2018.

That’s not to say the Vols aren’t without talent. Jones never lacked for recruiting wins, and a lot of last year’s issues came from the amount of youth in the lineup. Those players are older now, and there’s always a chance that Pruitt, offensive coordinator Tyson Helton, defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer, and company can find a magical formula.

Offense

2017 Tennessee offensive radar

Helton brings a solid résumé. The younger brother of USC coach Clay Helton, he spent two seasons as WKU’s coordinator (the Hilltoppers dominated, ranking in the Off. S&P+ top 10 both years), then two as USC’s quarterbacks coach, helping to mold top-five pick Sam Darnold.

When he was hired, he told Vol fans about how he wanted to establish a power run game. His Hilltoppers had that, ranking seventh in rushing success rate in 2015, but they also threw a lot. They were among the 10 most pass-heavy teams on both standard downs and passing downs.

Of course, he was coaching for former XFL quarterback Jeff Brohm at the time. Now his boss is a defensive coach. I’m going to guess the Vols are indeed going to run.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Ty Chandler
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Helton’s got quantity, even if the quality is undetermined. Sophomore and former blue-chipper Ty Chandler is back after gaining 305 yards last year; he looked great in carrying a heavy load at Kentucky (22 carries, 120 yards, lots after contact) but otherwise averaged just 3.8 yards per carry.

Sophomores Tim Jordan and Trey Coleman also saw a bit of the field, and Michigan State transfer Madre London rushed for 924 yards (albeit at just four per carry) over parts of three seasons in East Lansing. There are options, though you figure Chandler will get every chance to prove he’s ready for a breakout.

There’s quantity on the line, too. Left tackle Trey Smith immediately lived up to his recruiting hype; the No. 5 overall prospect in the 2017 class (per the 247Sports Composite) earned second-team all-conference honors as a true freshman. He was the only player to start all 12 games, though; Tennessee started a whopping 11 guys at least once, and that doesn’t include 2016 starter Chance Hall, who missed all year with injury.

Seven guys with starting experience (three of whom were either four- or five-star recruits) return, and Pruitt added Alabama backup Brandon Kennedy via grad transfer. There’s experience. There’s also almost nowhere to go but up. Despite Smith, the Vols ranked 86th in rushing success rate, 99th in Adj. Line Yards, and 125th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line).

NCAA Football: Music City Bowl-Tennessee vs Nebraska
Jauan Jennings
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a chance the running game doesn’t really take, which means Helton might be calling a fair number of pass plays. And that might not be a bad thing, as the receiving corps features a couple of the offense’s most proven pieces.

First, Jauan Jennings is back. He caught 40 balls for 580 yards and seven scores (including a Hail Mary grab against Georgia) before missing almost all of last season with injury, getting booted by interim head coach Brady Hoke, then getting reinstated by Pruitt. In Jennings’ absence, slot man Brandon Johnson averaged a solid 8.8 yards per target over about five targets per game, and X receiver Marquez Callaway averaged 10.7 per target over three per game.

That’s a solid trio, and the corps is loaded with redshirt freshmen and sophomores with potential. Pruitt signed a pair of tight ends (including four-star JUCO transfer Dominick Wood-Anderson) to account for the loss of Ethan Wolf (24 catches, five scores), too.

You still need a quarterback who a) does his part and b) stays upright. Sophomore Jarrett Guarantano took an incredible 26 sacks on just 165 pass attempts, sophomore Will McBride took six in 46 attempts, and (again, despite Smith) the Vols ranked 112th in Adj. Sack Rate.

That Guarantano completed 62 percent of his passes is encouraging, but he hasn’t locked down the job, especially with Stanford grad transfer Keller Chryst in town. Chryst looked encouraging in 2016 before getting hurt last year.

Options are good, and Tennessee has them. Play-makers are better, and that’s a little blurrier.

Defense

2017 Tennessee defensive radar

The Vols were undergoing a rebuild up front, then saw seemingly countless linebacker injuries. The top five tacklers were either sophomores or juniors.

This year’s unit will be a little bit more advanced than expected in the experience department, then. Four of the top six tacklers on the line return, as do four of five linebackers. In the secondary, last year’s top two are back, as is safety Todd Kelly Jr., who was lost for the year soon after Jennings. Depth is still unclear in the back seven, but there are plenty of star recruits.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Nigel Warrior
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary is room for both optimism and fear. The return of Kelly, Micah Abernathy, and Nigel Warrior gives the Vols a really nice security blanket; it doesn’t give them cornerbacks, though. Last year’s top three are gone, so it’s a grab bag led by sophomore Shawn Shamburger, who had all of 16.5 tackles last year. The SEC East does not lack for high-caliber passing games (Georgia’s and Missouri’s, to name two), so if cornerback is an issue, Pruitt won’t be able to hide it.

The two best play-makers in last year’s front seven (tackle Kendal Vickers and linebacker Colton Jumper) are gone, but it feels like less of a concern to me. End Kyle Phillips is a keeper, junior linebackers Daniel Bituli, Quart’e Sapp, and Darrell Taylor have experience and potential, and if healthy, senior Darrin Kirkland Jr. could still leave his mark. Pruitt signed a couple of JUCO transfers in the front seven, too, just to fluff up the depth a bit.

Really, it’s the same story as the offense. There are semi-experienced options everywhere but CB, and lord knows there are plenty of former blue-chippers on the two-deep. But the known play-makers are few and far between.

Sherrer has his work cut out for him, but he’s also proved himself. He made the jump from high school coach to Alabama director of player development in 2010, and by 2014 he had landed the Georgia OLBs gig under coordinator Pruitt. He stayed in Athens when Pruitt went back to Tuscaloosa. If they ever get the right balance of depth and athleticism, they could do good things.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Tennessee
Darrell Taylor (19)
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

For all of UT’s issues, special teams was mostly a plus. The Vols ranked 26th in Special Teams S&P+, posting mediocre numbers in returns and place-kicking but acing the punts and kickoffs.

Aaron Medley was the kickoffs guy, and Trevor Daniel was the punter. They’re gone. Ty Chandler flashed potential in kick returns, but we’ll see how many he returns if he’s also the No. 1 RB. This unit, then, is a bit of a blank slate.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep vs. West Virginia 43 -6.6 35%
8-Sep East Tennessee State NR 30.7 96%
15-Sep UTEP 130 21.3 89%
22-Sep Florida 32 -7.3 34%
29-Sep at Georgia 6 -26.2 6%
13-Oct at Auburn 5 -26.5 6%
20-Oct Alabama 2 -26.0 7%
27-Oct at South Carolina 35 -11.3 26%
3-Nov Charlotte 126 16.1 82%
10-Nov Kentucky 64 -0.9 48%
17-Nov Missouri 30 -8.0 32%
24-Nov at Vanderbilt 75 -3.1 43%
Projected S&P+ Rk 79
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 94 / 56
Projected wins 5.0
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.4 (34)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 21 / 12
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -3 / -0.6
2017 TO Luck/Game -1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 55% (63%, 48%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 4.1 (-0.1)

Tennessee doesn’t boast the overall returning production you would hope for, following a youth movement, and because the fall was so drastic last year, the Vols are projected only 79th in S&P+ this year. I could see something closer to a top-50 performance with the right breaks, but either way, the goal is simply reaching a bowl. UT is a projected favorite in three games and a one-possession underdog in four others. Getting to six isn’t impossible.

A secondary goal: don’t lose your morale during a ridiculous midseason stretch — at Georgia (No. 6 in S&P+), at Auburn (No. 5), Alabama (No. 2), and at South Carolina (at No. 35). UT gets Charlotte, Kentucky, and Missouri at home after that run and could go anywhere from 1-2 to 3-0 in that stretch.

Pruitt was not Tennessee’s first, second, third, etc., choice for the job. Despite the fact that his hire fits a profile (former Saban assistant) that has failed plenty of times, there’s obviously potential.

There is also, for a short time, a low bar. If Pruitt beats Florida or scares a heavyweight while going about 5-7, it’ll be considered a step forward.

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