Before last year, Jeremy Pruitt had never been a head coach at any level of football. Pruitt had never served as a head coach in the college ranks, and he was never a head coach during his years coaching high school football. That didn’t deter Tennessee Athletics Director Phillip Fulmer from hiring Pruitt as UT’s next head coach in December of 2017, though.
Fulmer turned over the keys of Tennessee’s struggling football program to a first-time head coach, and he and Vol fans alike expected plenty of growing pains because of that. And they were proven right.
There were highs in Pruitt’s first year as the Vols’ head coach — most notably Tennessee’s upset victory on the road over Auburn and their upset win over a top-10 Kentucky squad at home. But the bad far outweighed the good in Pruitt’s maiden voyage, as the Vols lost by multiple scores to West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, and Vanderbilt.
All in all, that led to a 5-7 season for Pruitt in his first year. Those seven losses he suffered as a head coach were more than he’d experienced in his previous three years as a defensive coordinator for Georgia (2015) and Alabama (2016 and 2017) combined.
Pruitt did many things right in his first year with the Vols, but he also made plenty of mistakes. One of the biggest ones came before the season even began.
In an interview with Tony Barnhart of the SEC Network and TMG College Sports, Pruitt discussed the adjustments he’s made heading into his second year as Tennessee’s head coach. He said one of the biggest lessons he learned came after the Vols’ blowout losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt to end the season. Tennessee had a chance to make it to a bowl game after defeating Kentucky, and they needed to win just one of their final two games to get to six wins and a postseason berth.
Instead, the Vols lost 50-17 to Missouri and 38-13 to Vanderbilt, ending an otherwise promising first season on a very sour note.
Pruitt admitted to Barnhart that he could tell there wasn’t the same amount of fight in the team near the end of the year that there was previously, and that stemmed from him not spending enough time with his players in the offseason to convince them to buy in to what he and his staff were selling.
“I spent a whole lot of time in the first six months on this job here trying to get things the way that I wanted them to be in the future,” Pruitt told Barnhart. “I was trying to fix a lot of things from an administrative standpoint. I didn’t spend enough time with our players. So I learned a valuable lesson this past year.”
After the season was over, Pruitt took that lesson to heart. He hired Jim Chaney to serve as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator after Tyson Helton departed to take the head coaching position at Western Kentucky, and he hired Derrick Ansley as the Vols’ defensive coordinator. Pruitt was guilty of meddling with the offense some in his first year, but he appeared more hands-off in that regard during the spring.
Not only that, but Pruitt has given up something he’s had control over for several years: Defensive play-calling.
When Pruitt hired Ansley to serve as defensive coordinator, he also gave Ansley play-calling duties. Pruitt called plays for Tennessee’s defense last year and was a defensive coordinator at Alabama, Georgia, and Florida State in the five years prior to his hiring at UT.
Now, however, Ansley will be the one calling plays for Tennessee’s defense. That, along with the hiring of Chaney, will allow Pruitt to focus more on big picture things and spend more time doing head coaching duties.
That move impressed Fulmer.
“I think that shows maturity,” Fulmer told Barnhart. “He realized he needed to look at the bigger picture.”
Fulmer was known for allowing his assistants to operate without much micromanaging, and it led to successful defenses under John Chavis and potent offenses under David Cutcliffe. It remains to be seen if the same will be said for Pruitt, but Fulmer clearly thinks he’s moving in the right direction in that regard.
Pruitt had plenty to learn from after his first year at Tennessee, and he’s already understanding the value of letting others lead in their own ways under him. Time will tell if that will result in more wins for the Vols this season, but it at least shows that Pruitt is self-aware enough to recognize he’s not infallible. The same can’t be said for some of Tennessee’s previous head coaches.