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Cornerback experience should pay off for the Tennessee defense in 2019

Pruitt thinks added trust in his secondary could make a big difference.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

We’re about to embark on year two of the Jeremy Pruitt era, hopefully meaning that the Vols are going to take a step or two in the right direction. The Vols struggled with the most the most elementary things last season, mainly due to a lack of personnel and experience within the system. As Pruitt gets more of his guys in the program and continues to establish a new culture, the Vols should find some more success on the field.

Jeremy Pruitt’s immediate task upon arrival in Knoxville was simply finding a couple of cornerbacks to start for his defense. Tennessee saw four corners exit the program after 2017, leaving the depth chart pretty empty for Pruitt. That’s all changed just over a year later.

Pruitt and his staff added two four-star athletes in the class of 2018 — Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson — and tossed them on the defensive side of the ball at cornerback. After a tough start, the move seemed to really pay off later in the year.

“I think as a defensive play-caller obviously your corners place limitations on your defense,” Pruitt said Wednesday during an appearance with WJOX’s 3ManFront in Birmingham. “We had young corners last year here and I think they have a chance to be really good players.”

How much did those young corners hold the defense back early on in the season? The two freshmen were met with the daunting task of facing one of the nation’s best passing attacks in week one. Will Grier and the West Virginia Mountaineers turned out to be everything they were hyped up to be, too. Grier ended up throwing for 429 yards and five touchdowns that afternoon, picking on Tennessee’s young and inexperienced secondary.

But as the year went on, Thompson and Taylor turned into a strength for the Tennessee defense. With a year of experience under their belts now, Jeremy Pruitt is hoping that Derrick Ansley will now have the freedom to get aggressive with pressure and trust his corners in man coverage.

“I think if you want to play the right style of defense, you have to have an aggressive mindset,” Pruitt said. “You have to put the opposing team kind of on their heels. I’ve always had a philosophy of lets try to get them before they get us. I think if you call the game that way and prepare your kids that way, they kind of take on that mindset.”

With just one real established pass rusher on the roster in Darrell Taylor, Ansley will likely have to get creative with his blitzes to generate some pressure in passing situations. To do that, you better trust your cornerbacks on an island. Heading into 2019, Tennessee has at least two guys that they can do that with. We’ll see how much of a difference that makes in the fall.