The Tennessee football program turns a new page as first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt leads the Vols into spring practice. It’s no surprise that things will be different with Pruitt calling the shots. The defense will look different going from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme.
Pruitt’s coaching background comes from the defensive side of the ball, where his prowess isn’t unnoticed. After all, he was coveted by Jimbo Fisher, Mark Richt and Nick Saban for each’s coaching staff. In recent seasons, Pruitt has had some of the best statistical defenses in the nation. Last season at Alabama, the Crimson Tide defense ranked in the top 10 nationally in yards per game, passing yards per game and rushing yards per game. They also ranked first in points given up per game, giving up 11.5 a contest.
Vol fans should expect to see a lot of competition in the upcoming spring practices in the trenches, where turnover and injuries leave a lot of opportunity. Let’s look at what could generate some buzz.
This isn’t the glamorous quarterback battle that will be had by Keller Chryst, Guarantano and crew, but the defensive line is a critical position that could change the outcome of any game. People tend to forget just how crucial defensive line is until 1) your team is giving up rushing touchdown after rushing touchdown or 2) when a player like Derek Barnett is impacting games. The 2018 Tennessee Vols will probably fall somewhere in between those two.
Key returning players include Jonathan Kongbo, Kyle Phillips and Darrell Taylor. They made the most impact last season and should have the upper hand when it comes to playing time this upcoming season.
Kongbo will be in his final season with the Vols and should finally be posed to have a breakout type of year. It’s no secret that the former junior college prospect has underachieved since being on Rocky Top. He only had nine solo tackles last season while assisting on 20 others. Maybe the switch to a 3-4 will better suit the 6-foot-6, 254-pound Kongbo.
Finally healthy for an entire season, Kyle Phillips was productive in 2017. He recorded 4.5 tackles for loss with 18 solo tackles — both more than in his first two seasons combined. That was the case for redshirt sophomore Darrell Taylor as well. He was huge in helping the Vols get a season-opening win against Georgia Tech with 12 tackles, including the game-winner in double overtime.
Could this be the year that Shy Tuttle actually lives up to his four-star ranking from the class of 2015? Tuttle hasn’t had a single season with over nine tackles. In all fairness, he hasn’t been the healthiest, but Tennessee fans have expected a lot more of the at-times dominant tackle.
Some new faces that could get some playing time and the spring practices only help their chances are in-state defensive tackle Greg Emerson, a four-star defender from Jackson, and defensive end Jordan Allen, a four-star prospect from San Francisco.
The other side of the line of scrimmage has just as much excitement to the competition this spring. Playing time is up for grabs and with a good spring, Vol fans might see some new faces blocking for whichever quarterback is taking the snaps.
Jashon Robertson, Brett Kendrick, Coleman Thomas, Venzell Boulware and Jack Jones all will not be putting on a Tennessee jersey in the 2018 season after seeing a mix of playing time over the past few years.
One bright spot the Vols had was Freshman All-American Trey Smith. But, after reports of Smith being sidelined for spring practice and maybe even longer, Pruitt will look for others to step up.
The likes of Ryan Johnson, Devante Brooks and Riley Locklear all had game experience in 2017, even combining for a few starts to end the year. They could be the first to fill the missing shoes, but newcomers like the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Ollie Lane might have something to say about that. Jerome Carvin is also an early enrollee that will look to make his mark this spring. Carvin is a 6-foot-4, 330-pound offensive tackle that was rated the 26th offensive tackle in the 2018 recruiting class.