On Saturday of this weekend, I was fortunate enough to interview five former Vols at an autograph event at Toyota Knoxville. They shared their thoughts on the upcoming season of Tennessee football, what it’s been like to see UT struggle since their playing days ended, and more. One of the topics we spent the most time talking about was what needs to be done to get Tennessee “back” in football.
The Vols were once one of the more dominant programs in college football. From 1989 to 2004, the Vols never won fewer than eight games in a season and had nine seasons of 10 or more wins. They won the 1998 national title and won the SEC East four times in that span and won the conference outright four times (twice before the SEC was split into divisions in 1992 and twice after).
Since then, however, Tennessee has struggled to a degree that’s never been seen in the program’s storied history.
From 2008 to this past season, the Vols have had just four winning seasons and haven’t made it back to the SEC Championship Game once. Last year was Tennessee’s worst season ever, losing eight games for the first time in school history and going winless in conference play for the first time as well.
So what’s it going to take to get Tennessee back on the right track? According to the former Vols I spoke to, it all starts with the interior on both offense and defense.
“We have to get solid on the offensive line and defensive line,” said DeAngelo Lloyd, who played defensive end for the Vols from 1997-2000. “Everybody has receivers, everybody has running backs and decent quarterbacks. But the interior is the most important thing.”
Lloyd saw some of the best offensive and defensive lines in recent Tennessee history during his playing days with the Vols. He played alongside some talented defensive linemen in his time. And Jabari Davis ran behind some of the Vols’ best offensive lines when he played running back from 2001-04.
“What made Tennessee so successful over the last 25 to 30 years has always been the big guys in the trenches,” Davis stated. “But they weren’t just big guys; they were guys who could move and had great footwork, guys who were very explosive off the ball. That’s one thing you think about when you hear Coach Fulmer’s name. He always brought in some hogs. We had some great linemen, and we developed some great linemen under him.
“That’s what we got to get back to. Once we get these linemen healthy and get some big boys that can block, some big boys that are tough and can play football the way it’s supposed to, you’ll see a lot more big things happen on the football field.”
Jeremy Pruitt has done all he can to bring in some bigger bodies for the Vols in his short time with Tennessee thus far. In the Vols’ 2018 signing class — Pruitt’s first as head coach of Tennessee — Pruitt and his staff added 11 offensive and defensive linemen to Tennessee’s roster. They also added Alabama grad transfer offensive lineman Brandon Kennedy within the last week.
It will take time to truly build up the Vols’ interior. And that’s why former linebacker Herman Lathers, who played from 2008 to 2012, thinks Pruitt’s first year will be a bit of a struggle.
“UT’s going to struggle this year on defense, in my opinion, because they’re moving from a 4-3 (defensive scheme) to a 3-4,” Lathers added. “It’s hard to pick up. And if you don’t have big guys up front, that’s where it starts out. I played linebacker, and if you don’t have those linemen up front that takes care of it for you, it don’t matter how good I am. If I don’t have a lineman releasing for me, I’m dead out there and can’t do anything. It all starts up front.”
The Vols were nearly dead last in the SEC in sacks allowed and sacks earned as a team this past season. Tennessee was 13th out of 14 SEC teams in total sacks on defense in 2017 with just 22, and they were 12th in the conference in sacks allowed with 35 given up. That was one of the biggest reasons the Vols struggled so mightily this past year.
But it goes beyond just finding big guys in the interior. According to A.J. Johnson, the Vols’ middle linebacker from 2011-14, Tennessee’s coaches also have to find players who love to play the game.
“It also boils down to getting guys who love football,” Johnson said. “You got to get guys who really want to play football. That’s what it will take to get back. You got to get them dogs in there and to go out there and be their best.”
It will take time for the Vols to be rebuilt, and Vol fans have been hearing that phrase for what seems like forever now. But at least right now, it looks like steps are being taken in the right direction.