Pruitt Sees Exciting Pieces on Defense, Wants to Develop O-Line Depth

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    Photo credit: Nathanael Rutherford/RTI

    Coming off the worst season in program history and a tumultuous coaching search that still garners discussion, Tennessee fans are looking for any sliver of hope to cling to. Throughout the spring and summer, first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt seemed to make good decision after good decision. Whether it is his recruiting tactics or personnel decisions, fans are slowly starting to buy into Pruitt.

    That excitement is also starting to beam from Pruitt, who seemed pleased with what he seen during his first fall camp as Tennessee’s head football coach.

    “There’s things that really excite you,” Pruitt said during media availability. “The offense’s huddle organization. They seemed to not have any trouble with the verbiage, which was good with a couple new quarterbacks out there. Felt like there was good communication on the defensive side. You can definitely see there’s some carryover from the spring until now. You can see a lot of our guys have worked this summer.”

    Verbiage can be a difficult transition for players when a new regime takes over, especially within a system as multiple as the Vols will employ. Now nearly eight months on the job, Pruitt feels that his players have adjusted well to the expectations and lingo his staff brings.

    “It’s amazing when you play football just how much knowledge gives you an edge,” Pruitt stated. “The guys that pick things up and understand what you’re trying to do, what the other team is trying to do, they know how to play situation football. It don’t take them as many steps to get to one spot as sometimes it does others.

    “I just think the longer they’ve been in the program, the more they’ve gotten used to the expectations that we have.”

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    With the understanding of expectations the staff has implemented, leaders have begun to develop on defense. Something that is vital for a defensive-minded head coach in his first season.

    “I think we got several guys who have the ability to be leaders on defense,” Pruitt said. “It takes a while for everybody to kinda get in their place a little bit and feel each other out, and it’s hard to do that until you kinda put the pads on.

    “We got some guys who didn’t participate in spring who have some good leadership ability, and we got some guys who participated in spring who do. So, I think it’ll work its way out, and the closer we get to the first game, hopefully some of these guys will step up.”

    Two guys that Tennessee is hoping step up and provide an immediate impact is freshman Bryce Thompson and junior-college signee Kenneth George Jr. Following the departures of Justin Martin, Emmanuel Moseley, Shaq Wiggins, and Rashaan Gaulden from the secondary last season, cornerback is a pressing need.

    Thompson, a late four-star signee out of South Carolina, will begin his career on Rocky Top at corner after also playing wide receiver in high school. George, who gained 50 pounds and grew four inches while walking-on at Trinity Valley Junior College, recorded 27 tackles and two interceptions last season. Pruitt is hopeful the pair can help replace the production lost in the defensive backfield.

    “I think Bryce (Thompson) and Kenneth (George Jr.) in their first practice, they showed some promise,” Pruitt stated. “They both have good feet, they’re heavy-handed, they play the ball, got good instincts. They have to learn what to do, and they are.”

    Another position Tennessee must develop fast is the offensive line. The starting lineup doesn’t need as much development, but the two-and-three deep do. The offensive line has been a turnstile in recent years due to injuries, but under a new strength and conditioning program, the hope is that offensive line coach Will Friend can develop a line that can hold its own within the conference.

    “We’ve gotta develop some depth (at offensive line),” Pruitt said. “At least we’ve got numbers now. In the spring we didn’t have numbers. At least we have a few more now.

    “We’ve gotta develop some football players, and it’s hard when you’ve got headgears on either side of the ball because you’re just trying to practice control and learning to step with the right foot, play with the right pad level getting your hands in the right spot and learning how to finish. But you also have to be smart as you do it.”

    Tennessee has the rest of this month to develop depth at key positions and figure out their starting rotations before taking on West Virginia on September 1st in Charlotte.

    Ben McKee is a graduate from the University of Tennessee and has a degree in Journalism and Electronic Media. He covers Tennessee football, basketball, baseball, and the Lady Vols for RTI, and he's also the host of the RTI Podcast. You can also hear Ben on the morning sports radio show "The Swain Event." He's the producer and co-host along with former Vol wide receiver Jayson Swain.