Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
2018 record: 5-7, 2-6 in the Southeastern Conference. No Post-Season Play
Head Coach: Phil Fulmer aka Jeremy Pruitt (2nd year, 5-7 in his first season). You may recall Jeremy Pruitt once held the title of Defensive Coordinator in the Classic City. Jeremy was Phil Fulmer’s choice for Head Coach in a coaching search that resulted in the firing of the AD John Currie in favor of Phil and six months later to the ouster of Chancellor Beverly Davenport. Pruitt was hired a short 25 days after UT sent Lyle “Butch” Jones to the Nick Saban School for Coach Rehabilitation.
Home Stadium: Neyland Stadium (capacity: 102,455)
Alumnus of Note: Saxby Chambliss, Albert Gore, Sr. and Scopes Trial Attorney John R. Neal Jr.
Are they at the bottom of a hole and do they have a shovel?
It’s the second season of the Jeremy Pruitt experiment in Knoxville. The jury is still out on how long until Phil Fulmer relieves Pruitt of the pressures of being an SEC Head Coach in favor of the DIY approach. Last season wasn’t a particularly impressive performance by the Volunteers going only 2 – 6 in the conference with losses to Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt. The only SEC teams they beat were eventual #21 Auburn and #12 Kentucky. Not exactly a national championship performance.
The Volunteers return NJ native & Redshirt Junior Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.* He’s on the Maxwell Award Preseason Watch list and comes in at 6’4” and 200 lbs. In his last two seasons he’s accomplished -133 rushing yards and 2,904 passing yards for a total net offensive yardage of 2,771. His passing yards last year more than doubled his prior efforts going from 997 yards in 2017 to 1,907 in 2018. His completion percentage remained steady at 62%. He does have a dangerous long ball, having completed season long passes of 60 and 53 yards for 2017 & 2018.
Pruitt & company picked up 4 star Running Back Eric Gray in the early signing period. Pruitt seems quite taken with his skill set. According to Pruitt, “He’s got really good ball skills, he’s got good vision. He’s a good competitor. He jumps out there — he’s very mature when it comes to football ability. We’re excited about him and think he’s had a really good camp so far. Again, this is a guy who’s been really good in practice, been really good in the drills, let’s see how he does when we get over here to the stadium.” Speculation is Mr. Gray may see playing time early in the year. 247sports lists Mr. Gray as the #3 All Purpose Back in the 2019 class. If he & Mr. Guarantano can develop a solid rhythm, they could be a dangerous combination to defend.
On the offensive line, Nathan Niehaus has left the program due to the cumulative impact of injuries, freshman guard Melvin McBride and senior Tackle Chance Hall have both retired from football while Sr. tackle Drew Richmond has elected to transfer.
Former UT Tight End Eli Wolf graduated last year, entered the transfer portal and will now being playing for the Bulldogs as a graduate transfer. He didn’t see much production in his time in Knoxville, we’ll see what Todd Hartley & James Coley do with him.
Speaking of Defense….
The really bad news out of Knoxville this week centers around DB Baylen Buchanan who may end up with a redshirt this year. After starting all 12 games last year in the “star” position, he’s been sidelined since spring with a nagging injury. Pruitt provided an update earlier this week that they’ve discovered Buchanan has an issue with narrowing of the spine. Since he still has his redshirt year available, he may take it this year.
To replace him, the Vols have tried out three separate players in Buchanan’s slot including Nigel Warrior, Bryce Thompson and Shawn Shamburger during fall practice.
Adding to UT’s woes in the defense, Emmit Gooden, starting defensive tackle is out for the season with a knee injury. (Do I sense a touch of poetic justice?)
UT lost three of their defensive line seniors since last year and is still waiting on the NCAA to decide on the waivers for Aubrey Solomon and DeAngelo Gibbs. In short, the defensive line is suspect at this point.
On the Coaching side…
Pruitt did snag former UGA Offensive Coordinator Jim Chaney and picked up Derek Ansley as well. Kevin Sherrer was moved over to Special Teams upon the departure of Tyson Helton for WKU’s head coaching opportunity.
Further, Coach P thinks he’s fixed at least one mistake from last year – the relationship between players and coaches is improved to the point where players appear to be more comfortable around the coaching staff. In Pruitt’s perspective this translates to seeing players who are “growing and developing.”
The Bottom Line
There are not many improvements to find in the changes to the Volunteer team since last season. Given that UT lost to Vanderbilt en route to a 2-6 record in the conference and missing bowl eligibility by 1 game, it’s hard to believe the Volunteers should give the Bulldogs much difficulty.
This is still college football and something of a rivalry game, so anything could happen. If they can find a rhythm, it’s possible the UT Offense will put some points on the board, but I’m not convinced the Defense will have what it needs to stop Jake Fromm & the Georgia offense. If we can avoid turf related injuries, we may well hang half a hundred on ‘em in their own horrendous stadium.
Prediction: Georgia 52, Tennessee 21.
*I did check, he was not previously a contestant on the first season of American Idol, that was Justin Guarini and he was terrible in From Justin to Kelly by the way.