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VOL. 42 | NO. 30 | Friday, July 27, 2018

Vols' Pruitt passes 1st test as SEC head coach

By Rhiannon Potkey

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University of Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt recorded his first “victory” of the season last week without even taking the field.

He managed to navigate the gauntlet that is SEC Media Days.

Making his debut at the event, Pruitt portrayed confidence, didn’t spew hokey clichés and took the high road when his qualifications were questioned.

The first-year head coach hit all the high notes when he stepped to the podium and made his opening remarks to reporters in the room and a national viewing audience on the SEC Network.

After taking some heat by calling out the Tennessee fans following the Orange and White Spring Game, Pruitt did his best to make amends.

“The passion, you can feel it. We’re hungry. They’re hungry. Everybody’s hungry,” said Pruitt, the former Alabama defensive coordinator who replaced Butch Jones.

“We’re excited to get started. We’re excited to get this era started and can’t wait to do it.”

SEC Media Days relocated this year to the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. It’s the first time since 1985 the event has been held outside of the Birmingham area. It’s scheduled to move back to nearby Hoover next year, and then might rotate among different cities.

Tennessee and Vanderbilt appeared in Atlanta on back-to-back days, with the Vols taking the stage on Wednesday and the Commodores following on Thursday.

Although no major news broke or crazy antics ensued, there was plenty of information provided to get everyone ready for the season openers on September 1.

Smith scheduled to return

After missing spring practice with an undisclosed medical condition, UT sophomore offensive lineman Trey Smith will participate in fall camp.

The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Smith is the best player on UT’s team, having started all 12 games as a freshman and collecting numerous postseason accolades.

“We’re excited to have him back. We can’t wait to get him back, and he’s excited about coming back,” Pruitt pointed out. “He keeps talking to me about, ‘Man, I missed all of those reps in the spring.’ I said I promise you, you’ll be fine.”

Pruitt also updated the status of highly-touted recruit JJ Peterson. The four-star linebacker, UT’s top 2018 signee, hadn’t reported to campus before media days began.

But Pruitt said the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Georgia native was scheduled to arrive in time for fall camp.

“He’s got a few things he’s cleaning up that we’re waiting on to get some information back, but we expect to see him in August,” Pruitt explained.

Quarterback options

Tennessee’s quarterback situation remains a work in progress. The Vols have four quarterbacks on the roster with the addition of graduate transfer Keller Chryst from Stanford and incoming freshman J.T. Shrout.

The newcomers will join redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano and sophomore Will McBride in the QB room. Guarantano and McBride are the only signal callers with SEC experience after last year’s season-opening starter, Quinten Dormady, transferred to Houston.

Pruitt said all four quarterbacks will get a chance to prove themselves in fall camp, although it won’t be limitless.

“I think it’s going to be important for us as a staff to start whittling it down pretty fast so we can kind of create rhythm and timing and a little bit of chemistry on offense and figure out who our guys are going to be,” Pruitt acknowledged.

All about Shurmur

Vanderbilt’s quarterback situation is much more solidified. Senior Kyle Shurmur is the clear-cut starter.

“I truly believe Kyle Shurmur is one of the most improved quarterbacks and one of the most dynamic passers in this conference that people are not talking about,” Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason said.

“That’s OK. I don’t need people to talk about Kyle Shurmur. I know and I understand his pedigree, and I have seen his development of when he was a freshman and where he is now. I’ve seen him with weapons, without weapons, with an offensive line, and without an offensive line. His growth and maturity is really beyond his years. He believes in this team. This team believes in him.”

Shurmur threw for 2,823 yards last season – the second-most of any Commodore junior – and his 26 touchdown passes set a new single-season program record. He’s striving to be even better to finish his career.

“One of my focuses this year was building chemistry with some of the younger receivers, because we had a few guys graduate,” said Shurmur, the son of New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur.

“So, trying to be in the film room, trying to throw a little bit extra after practice and trying to build chemistry with some of the newer guys while also building chemistry with the older guys that have had experience here.”

Delegating the defense

Mason will be the “head coach only” for Vandy this season, having dropped the additional responsibilities of defensive coordinator. Mason hired good friend Jason Tarver as the DC. Tarver is a former NFL assistant with the Raiders and 49ers who worked with Mason at Stanford.

Mason added he identified Tarver as the person he wanted leading Vandy’s defense three years ago, but Tarver was under contract.

“We’re the same guy, probably grew up in the same household. We just look a little different,” Mason said. “With that being said, his energy, his passion, his attention to detail, his coaching style are very similar to mine, but I believe his football I.Q. and what he’s been able to do over the last four months in terms of solidifying our defense has been the mastery that’s Jason Tarver. I’m excited about that.”

Adding fuel to the fire

As if UT and Georgia needed another reason to spice up the rivalry between the SEC East programs. Well, former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray provided one anyway.

Murray made disparaging remarks about Pruitt, a former UGA defensive coordinator, during an interview with Nashville radio station 102.5-FM.

Murray, who is now an analyst for CBS Sports Network, criticized Pruitt and questioned whether he was fit to be a head coach.

He claimed Pruitt treated former UGA head coach Mark Richt poorly and added Pruitt doesn’t have the right demeanor to be the figurehead of a college football program.

“As a head coach, there’s so many things that go into it. It’s not just going out there and coaching. You have to deal with front office. You’ve got to go talk with the president of the university. You have to deal with boosters. You have to deal with the offense, the defense,” Murray said.

“It’s not just going in there and dealing with the kids and scheming up. There’s a lot that goes into it … I don’t think he’s the right guy to kind of be the CEO of a corporation.”

Asked if Murray’s criticism was fair, Pruitt took the high road: “I look at it like this: 15 year ago, I was a kindergarten teacher, and today I’m the head coach at Tennessee. So you probably don’t make that ascension unless you know how to treat people.”

Interestingly, Pruitt and Murray’s time at UGA never overlapped. Murray played for the Dawgs from 2009-13 while Pruitt was UGA’s defensive coordinator in 2014-15.

Although Pruitt said he doesn’t know Murray personally, he has “a lot of respect for what kind of player he was.”

SEC Network analyst David Pollack, a former UGA All-American, weighed in on what amounted to the closest bit of ‘controversy’ or ‘drama’ at SEC Media Days.

“Some of the things Jeremy Pruitt did to Mark Richt, some coaches would tell you are the most disrespectful, most crazy things they heard,” explained Pollack after Pruitt’s appearance in Atlanta. “... He put on a good show (at the podium), he definitely showed you what he has.

“I want to see if he continues to treat people in the correct manner, if he respects authority, because to be honest, the stories we’ve heard –we’ve all heard the same stories, it was pretty bad. It was disrespectful, so that’s what I’m interested to see.”

Coach-player relationship

Having gone through spring practice with Pruitt at the helm, the Vols are starting to get to know him better on many levels. UT’s representatives in Atlanta – tight end Eli Wolf, defensive end Kyle Phillips and wide receiver Marquez Callaway - were asked for their insights.

“A man of few words,” Wolf pointed out. “He expects us to hold each other accountable and that’s starting to form. The players are holding each other accountable. It’s kind of a player-led team.”

“He’s a fun guy,” Kyle Phillips added. “Definitely a guy you want to be around. Before he came here, I heard a lot from former players that played under him, so many compliments about him about how he cares about his players and wants them to be successful on the field and off the field. It’s really just been a blessing.”

“Coach Pruitt has a different personality,” Callaway said. “I think that’s good. We need different. … It’s kind of different than coach Jones. Coach Jones was a fun guy.

“He likes to talk a lot. Coach Pruitt, not really. That kind of goes into football as well. He says what he needs to say and we listen.”

Thaxton saga ends with dismissal

A few days before the Vols departed for SEC Media Days, redshirt freshman defensive lineman Ryan Thaxton was arrested and charged with domestic assault and false imprisonment, according to court records.

The former three-star prospect from Virginia allegedly pushed his girlfriend into his dorm room and blocked her from leaving. He was arrested and released on $,1500 bond.

“We’re not going to condone it. We’re not going to tolerate it,” Pruitt said in Atlanta when asked about team policy on such issues. “Once we gather all the information, we’ll have a little more answers then.”

After initially suspending Thaxton from all team activities while law enforcement investigated the July 15th incident, UT dismissed Thaxton from the team on Monday.

Gone, but not forgotten

Jones may not have been in attendance, but his name was mentioned often in discussing the changes at UT.

Now an analyst on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama, Jones was regularly mocked for his constant cliches while speaking with the media and for coining phrases like “Champions of Life” and “Five-star hearts.”

SEC Network analyst and longtime radio personality Paul Finebaum delivered a few parting shots to Jones.

“A year ago, Butch Jones was disingenuous, thin-skinned – he was a pathetic carny barker,” said Finebaum, a UT graduate. “He is now gone and Tennessee fans want to see a real coach. They have a real coach.”

Finebaum praised Phillip Fulmer becoming UT’s athletic director after an embarrassing coaching hiring search led to the dismissal of former AD John Currie.

“The man who should have been hired in the first place and who was passed over in spite of everything – Phillip Fulmer has done for this university,” Finebaum continued. “I think for the first time in a long time, the University of Tennessee is back on the right track.”

The picks are in

As expected, UT and Vanderbilt are not projected to have successful seasons in the SEC.

The state rivals were picked to finish at the bottom of the SEC East standings in the league’s annual preseason media poll. The Vols were picked to finish sixth in the seven-team division, ahead of only Vanderbilt.

The Vols, coming off a historically bad 0-8 SEC season, had never been picked to finish lower than fifth in the division in the history of the SEC preseason polls.

Defending national champion Alabama was picked to win the overall SEC title while defending SEC champion Georgia was projected to win the SEC East.

Trey Smith, a first-team selection, was the only UT player named to the preseason All-SEC team. No Vanderbilt players were selected.

The Vols were picked to finish sixth out of seven teams in the SEC East this season. The only team with fewer points in the final tally in the East was Vanderbilt.

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