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Playing for “Three Gurus” Helped Howard Pick Vols

This article is part two of a series of articles from an interview with Vol commit Elijah Howard. You can find part one here.

Tennessee was the first school to extend and offer to Elijah Howard. The Vols’ old coaching staff gave him an offer all the way back in 2016 after he attended a camp on UT’s campus, and Jeremy Pruitt and his staff still honored that offer and continued to pursue the in-state back once taking over.

Other offers came in, but Tennessee stayed at the front of Howard’s mind thanks to how frequent UT’s coaches contacted him.

“With them being my first offer, they really pushed communication with how often they came up to the school, popping in and seeing how I was doing,” Howard told me in a recent interview.

And it wasn’t just Pruitt and his original Tennessee staff, either.

Tennessee’s two main coordinators — Jim Chaney and Derrick Ansley — were both hired in the offseason leading up to the 2019 season. Both wasted no time getting to know Howard and showing him that he was a priority for Tennessee still.

“Every time I go down there, (Jim Chaney and I) will have a meeting, sit down, and talk about life and how everything is going on and off the field,” Howard said. “I also talk to Coach Ansley a lot because my dad cuts his hair, so I’ll see him in the barbershop. We talk a lot over text, too.”

On June 25, 2019 — nearly three years after Tennessee first extended an offer to him — Howard decided to commit to the Vols.

Howard, who played for Baylor High School in Chattanooga last season, was one of the first recruits to commit to Tennessee in the 2021 class. And even after the Vols’ rough start to the 2019 season, Howard never wavered.

In fact, Howard was one of the most frequent visitors to Tennessee’s campus during the 2019 campaign.

The in-state back visited Tennessee for three home games during the 2019 season, and he came back to campus twice in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down recruiting visits.

So what’s kept Howard in the boat for so long? Because he believes Tennessee’s coaching staff is made up of “gurus.”

“We’ve just got the right guys in. The coaches, you feel welcome,” Howard explained. “They’ll talk to you about your future. To be coached by three gurus is going to be great. You have Coach Ansley, Coach Chaney, and Coach Pruitt.”

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The dictionary defines a “guru” as a person “with knowledge or expertise” who is usually “an acknowledged leader or chief proponent” outside of the religious context of the word. That definition certainly can apply to Pruitt, Ansley, and Chaney when it comes to developing talent and preparing players for the NFL.

Pruitt, Ansley, and Chaney have combined to coach well over 100 NFL draft picks throughout their coaching careers, and that includes a pair of Vols who were selected in the 2020 NFL Draft earlier this year (Darrell Taylor, Jauan Jennings).

Howard’s words echo what four-star defensive back Kamar Wilcoxson said in an interview with RTI last month.

“Probably around March, I really started locking in on what was best for me and my future because I know wherever I wanted to go, I wanted to build an epic class around me,” Wilcoxson said. “I started checking the track record of coaches, and I looked at Coach Pruitt’s, and I was like, ‘dang, Coach Pruitt is really an elite defensive back coach on top of being an elite talent evaluator.’ So I got a steal. It’s the same with Coach Ansley.

“Honestly, I got a steal being able to play for both of them and being able to make contributions early.”

Along with Howard’s father cutting Ansley’s hair, the rising high school senior has a relationship with Tennessee’s defensive coordinator because originally the Vols were thinking of playing Howard on the defensive side of the ball at UT.

But after Howard absolutely exploded on offense and on special teams for Baylor last season, Tennessee’s coaches thought differently.

“At first when they started recruiting me, before my junior year, they were talking a lot about playing DB because of my versatility,” Howard said. “I can cover a lot of field, and they wanted to see me play DB at first. But then after my junior season, Coach Chaney talked to me and Coach Pruitt, and they wanted me to be on the offensive side of the ball to be that slot guy that can go and get the match-ups and to play running back a bit and play on the return team.”

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound athlete ran for over 1,400 yards and 20 touchdowns for Baylor last season after transferring to Chattanooga after playing at Webb High School in Knoxville. He was a finalist for the Tennessee Mr. Football award in Division II-AAA because of that.

Howard isn’t the only running back currently committed to the Vols in the 2021 cycle. Four-star Cody Brown and No. 1 JUCO running back Tiyon Evans are also in the boat for Tennessee. But competition won’t scare Howard away, and his versatility as a receiver and returner will make him a valuable addition to UT’s roster.

And at Tennessee, Howard believes no matter where he plays on the field, he’ll be coached by a highly-qualified expert. A guru, if you will.

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