By Alex Norman
I was writing this column before the Missouri game, so I don’t know if the Vols won and secured a bowl game appearance, or if Missouri won and their players carried offensive coordinator (and former Tennessee head coach) Derek Dooley off the field, sparking a riot and the entire destruction of the UT campus.
But no matter what happened on Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium, one thing is certain.
Tennessee football is on the rise.
Yes, I know Vols fans… you heard this before. There were moments during the Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley and Butch Jones eras when you thought, ‘Hey! This is moving in the right direction!’ only to have your hopes and dreams knocked down time and time again.
But what we’ve seen thus far in the Jeremy Pruitt era is something we didn’t see very much in the previous regimes, especially under Dooley and Jones.
Tennessee’s players… are actually getting better.
Jarrett Guarantano, Darrell Taylor, Kyle Phillips… just a few of the players that have made a serious jump in 2018. Overall you don’t see nearly as many of the mental mistakes on this team either.
Injuries happen to every team, and you’ve seen that with outside linebacker Jonathan Kongbo being lost for the season, along with offensive lineman Brandon Kennedy. But the MASH unit isn’t nearly what it had been in recent years. Remember, in the final two years of Butch Jones, the Vols were forced to burn redshirts and play scout team members at an astounding rate. Heck, less than 60 scholarship players suited up for the LSU game in 2017.
But the strength and conditioning program under Craig Fitzgerald seems to be more than a few steps better than the revolving door of S&C coaches you saw previously. Getting Fitzgerald to leave the NFL’s Houston Texans for the Vols might have been Pruitt’s biggest move to date.
The soap operas that always surrounded Tennessee football over the past decade are now a thing of the past under Pruitt. It always felt like Kiffin, Dooley and Jones were trying to prove something. In fact, you wondered if Jones spent more time working on clichés instead of game planning for Alabama. Pruitt though? You get the feeling that he could care less about anything that happens outside the football complex. He does the media interviews because he has to, and looks like someone going through a root canal when sitting at the desk on his television show.
Pruitt is boring, and exactly what Tennessee football needed. He just wants to coach.
Recruiting continues to go well, and Tennessee likely ends up with a top 15 class. The early signing period in December is shaping up to be a good one for the Vols.
Now, does all of this mean that UT is going to win the SEC next season? Of course not. It’s really, really difficult to get to the top of the ladder in the Saban era. But the direction that Tennessee football is currently in is a positive one.
The drama of the past… truly is a thing of the past.
Of course, a win at Vandy would be nice too…