Breathe easy, Vol Nation. We actually have a sense of direction on Rocky Top these days.
The Vols finally solved their Bigfoot-esque mystery of who was going to become the next head coach of the football program. After just six short days of AD Phillip Fulmer’s reign, the Vols hired Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, making him the 26th head coach in program history.
Even though the majority of Pruitt’s lineage derives from the state of Alabama, this move has Fulmer’s fingerprints all over it. Pruitt is a tough, defensive-minded coach with an excellent track record when it comes to the recruiting process. The simple fact that Fulmer overcame his disdain for all things Bama really showed his ability to look at the big picture when it comes to running the athletic department - namely the football program.
When you look back at Fulmer’s tenure, the first thing that comes to mind is the plethora of defensive players that took the field at Tennessee during that span. Seven players were drafted in the first round of the NFL draft including the likes of Al Wilson, John Henderson, Albert Haynesworth, and Jason Allen - to name a few.
Fulmer was able to maximize this talent as well. The Vols were ranked right around 17th in points allowed per game on average from 1993-1999 and were ranked 26th on average in yards allowed per game from 2000-2008. These numbers may not fly off the page, but UT was very consistent on defense, ranking in the top ten of either category seven different times in Fulmer’s 16 seasons at the helm.
The Vols had 47 total defensive players drafted from 1993-2008 and that number surpassed the total amount of offensive players by six. Nine of the 47 defensive players were taken from the 1998 championship team alone.
One could argue that this was the most successful era of Tennessee football and other than some guy named Peyton, a lot of the success came from plays made by Tennessee’s defense.
So what does this all mean? Well, when put into context with Fulmer’s first official hire as AD, it is pretty obvious that he believes the path to winning in the SEC is by keeping opponents out of the end zone, and Pruitt is tops in the nation when it comes to achieving this goal.
The hiring of Pruitt is a breath of fresh air, a wonderful change in scenery for a program that has exclusively hired offensive-minded coaches for the past decade - only to watch them fail over and over again. Even worse, neither Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, or Butch Jones could put together any type of consistent offense throughout their tenures. The Vols never ranked higher than 17th (Dooley’s final year) in yards per game and fell as low as 125th at one point (Butch Jones’s final season).
Pruitt inherits a defensive roster that has plenty of talent at the top, but has depth concerns all over as well as issues in the secondary. The defensive line is stocked with undeveloped talent with players such as Kahlil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle, and Johnathon Kongbo. If Darrin Kirkland Jr. can stay healthy - which is a HUGE if - then Pruitt will have an extremely talented and experienced front seven to rely on.
He will also be a major factor in rebuilding UT’s recruiting class. Not only will he have his eyes set on getting Cade Mays, Jaycee Horn, Trey Dean, etc. back in the fold, but who knows what impact he will have on the kids he recruited to come to Alabama. The potential is there for him to pluck recruits from Bama’s 2018 class, which would give the Vols their first victory over the Tide in over a decade.
The most exciting aspect of this hire is by far and away the fact that the Fulmer wanted to change the tone of this program - and he has already done just that. The Vols have struggled with having a “soft” image for almost a decade and they are already on the right path toward bucking that trend.
Have they done so with this hire? Only time will tell, but on the surface it appears so. But for now, it’s time to sit back and watch the pieces come together for what is hopefully the beginning of a successful era for Tennessee football.
God knows we need it.