Here it is, the first of August, and football is in the minds of many.
And so it is for the followers of the Big Orange. Let’s face facts. The Vols and their coaches have much work to do. The demolition of the bricks laid by the last regime is going to be a difficult process, but a doable one.
Tennessee’s football team returned to the practice field last week, and now we’ll actually have something of substance to talk about. We’ll be able to measure progress from the resulting practices and determine growth by individuals, by positions and as a team. You can’t expect glowing results over night, but the fact that the Jeremy Pruitt regime has been in place for 18 months should move the process along.
Okay, we know the Vols need to build depth and consistency in their offensive line. We know there needs to be a solid backup at quarterback for Jarrett Guarantano. We know that player development is paramount.
Blah, blah, blah.
We’ve been hearing this since last November, when Vanderbilt beat Tennessee for the third straight time, a feat that hasn’t occurred since 1926 (Vandy beat Tennessee in 1923, 1925 and 1926, when head coach Robert Neyland arrived).
So what do the Vols really need to do this year?
For starters, they need to be tougher, both mentally and physically. Tennessee showed flashes of toughness last year from the starting gate. Just not enough. A physically and mentally tougher team wouldn’t have lost at South Carolina or at Vanderbilt, as UT did last year. A mentally tougher team would have been playing in December a year ago.
Chalk that up to the prior regime. This team wasn’t properly developed, lacked depth and experience. That could have been avoided.
The Vols need to be more aggressive on defense this year, which will be a tall order, given they only have one real pass rusher returning in Darrell Taylor, who is the SEC’s returning leader in sacks from a year ago with eight. Emmitt Gooden will have to be a leader up front and help provide the heat.
Tennessee needs to be stronger and healthier this year. Vols strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald and the nutrition staff has, by all accounts, worked miracles with this team. The new offensive scheme – and the fact that a lot of players return with experience and the fact that strength and conditioning helps preclude injuries – may mean that the Vols aren’t as likely to run out of gas in November this year.
The Vols need a sense of urgency and pride. Last November, it had been suggested that some players didn’t want to be bothered playing in the Toys-R-Us Bowl in Topeka against Drake, so they tanked it late in the year, a la the Vols in 2011 under Derek Dooley. From what I’ve learned, most of those guys are gone, and if they aren’t, the remainder needs to be weeded out.
Coach Pruitt needs to get out of his own way and let his coordinators run the show. He needs to let Jim Chaney run the offense and Derek Ansley run the defense. UT has assembled a good staff. Pruitt could only hurt himself by not turning his coaches loose. Of course, as head coach, he has final say, but everyone needs to be on the same page.
We learned that Butch Jones really built the UT house with straw and sticks. Cleaning up his mess isn’t easy, but it can be done, and the Vols appear to be headed in the right direction.
Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was Neyland Stadium.
Jim Steele is a correspondent for Magic Valley Publishing and the host of The Pressbox, which airs 4-6 p.m. CT, Monday-Thursday on WRJB 95.9 FM, Camden, Tenn.