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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, April 13, 2018

Pruitt brings fresh, quieter approach to spring practice




I find the culture shift of Tennessee football under new head coach Jeremy Pruitt this spring to be refreshing.

To better appreciate Pruitt’s no-nonsense approach, I went back to the first spring practices of Pruitt’s three predecessors. Butch Jones made his spring debut in 2013, Derek Dooley in 2010 and Lane Kiffin in 2009.

Boy, were they different from Pruitt.

Pruitt has turned off the blaring music Jones played during practices. Pruitt doesn’t bark into a microphone like Jones did, either.

Nor has Pruitt mentioned individual players and their performances, at least not through the first three weeks of practices and after last Saturday’s first full-scale scrimmage. Media was allowed to watch one session lasting about eight minutes of the first scrimmage, and no statistics were provided from the scrimmage.

And when Pruitt finally made three Vols available to the media April 3, they followed their coach’s lead when asked about their teammates. They dodged the questions.

“I can’t speak on individuals,” junior safety Nigel Warrior said when asked about defensive backs Tyler Byrd and Carlin Fils-aime. “You can ask Coach Pruitt on how he feels. I’m here to play football, man.”

It’s clear the route Pruitt is taking. He’s going old school. The former Alabama defensive coordinator and secondary coach made it clear when asked about turning off the music during practices.

“I don’t think they play music during football games, or I hadn’t ever heard it,” Pruitt pointed out. “Maybe they do. … We already only have 20 hours during the week that we can coach them, so I darn sure don’t want music out there, where they can’t hear what I’m saying.”

Junior linebacker Quart’e Sapp says the missing music is only one sign of change.

“I feel like it’s a little culture shift,” Sapp added. “Everyone reacts to change a little bit different, but I feel like for the most part, everyone is reacting to it in a good manner.”

This year’s DISH Orange and White game is set for April 21 at 2 p.m. EDT and will be played using standard scoring and rules. Admission and parking are free. Gates open at 12:30, and the traditional game-day Vol Walk will be at 12:55.

“I want to create a game-like situation to see who the competitors are,” Pruitt says.

Here’s a look at the first spring practices of Pruitt’s three predecessors:

Butch Jones, Spring 2013

It didn’t take long for Jones – who had successful head coaching runs at Central Michigan and Cincinnati before coming to Knoxville – to start yelling orders through with his mic during spring practices.

Jones was asked about the mic after the Vols’ first spring scrimmage, Apr. 6, 2013, but the answer was vague.

“Big,” he said. “It is a culture, and it is an expectation. Our margin of error with this football team is very slim. You all see it. We all know. We could be a good football team but our margin of error is extremely small. It is limited. So we can’t have turnovers. We can’t have penalties. Our players understand that. Every time out is a teaching moment.”

Jones spent spring of 2013 searching for a starting quarterback, a competition between junior Justin Worley, redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and true freshman Joshua Dobbs.

“They better have a sense of urgency,” Jones said of the quarterbacks. “If they don’t, they should have it after today, and I can promise you they will have it on Monday.”

Jones singled out Alton “Pig” Howard when asked about the team’s top playmakers.

“I think that Alton Howard could be a playmaker for us but he has to get himself in much better shape, not only physically but also mentally,” Jones explain. “I also think Jason Croom is coming along. We still have a long way to go.”

By the April 20 Orange and White game, Tennessee fans were all in on Jones, whose marketing mind was already at work four months into his job as the Vols’ coach.

Vol Nation showed up for the game, 61,076 strong, with 25,000 at Fan Appreciation Day, where Jones and his players signed autographs. The Orange team (defense) beat the White team (offense) 85-71 in a controlled scrimmage with a complex scoring system.

Former UT running back Arian Foster, then a Pro Bowl running back with the Houston Texans, acted as disc jockey on the sideline for the spring game, working a turntable, bobbing his head and scratching records over a PA system.

Worley was the starting quarterback for the offense and completed 8 of 18 passes for 123 yards with a touchdown and interception. Peterman was 9 of 23 for 98 yards without a TD or pick. There were no statistics for Dobbs.

Jones was asked about Worley being the starter and responded: “I still need more time to address that. I thought that he did some good things. Nate (Peterman) was kind of in a challenging situation, so you have to take that into consideration. Obviously, when we move forward, this summer will tell me a lot.”

Alden Hill was the leading rusher with 101 yards on 18 carries.

“Today’s performance summarizes his spring,” Jones said of Hill. “He has been a great surprise. Does he still have a long way to go? Yes. Did he leave some yards out there? Yes. But, he has been an individual who has had great consistency in his performance. He comes with the mentality to get better each and every day. He has to become much more physical.”

Jones declared the spring game a rousing success when asked if a message was sent.

“The message is loud and clear: There is no other place in the country like Tennessee,” Jones replied. “All you have to do is look at the evidence, the success of the program, the leadership from our administration, the fan base and our coaching staff.

“We are going to attract the right players to come play football here at Tennessee. Why would you not want to come here? You see the environment, the chance to build something special. I think that today spoke volumes.”

Worley earned the starting job in fall camp, starting seven of the first eight games before suffering a thumb injury that required surgery on Oct. 29, 2013. He threw for 1,239 yards with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions, completing 55.6 percent of his passes.

Peterman played backup duty the first three games, and in the fourth game of the season got his first start against Florida but suffered a broken hand. He didn’t play again in 2013.

Dobbs was announced as UT’s starter the day Worley had surgery and started the last four games. He completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 695 yards with two TDs and five interceptions. Dobbs was the backup to Worley for the first seven games of 2014 before Worley suffered a career-ending torn labrum. Dobbs was a standout starter in 2015 and ’16, and just completed his rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Peterman transferred to Pittsburgh for his last two seasons of college ball (2015-16) and played his rookie season with the Buffalo Bills in 2017.

Senior Rajion Neal led the Vols’ rushing in 2013 with 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, while Lane rushed for 534 yards and four TDs.

Tennessee went 5-7 and 2-6 in the SEC in 2013. Jones was fired with two games left in the 2017 season when the Vols finished 4-8, 0-8 in the SEC.

Derek Dooley, Spring 2010

Dooley, coming off a 4-8 season as head coach at Louisiana Tech in 2009, was hired as Tennessee’s coach on Jan. 15, 2010, after Kiffin’s sudden exit for USC three days earlier.

Dooley started spring practices with a three-way quarterback race between senior Nick Stephens, junior Matt Simms and true freshman Tyler Bray.

In the Vols’ first spring scrimmage, Stephens was the starting quarterback, but completed only 3 of 9 passes for 6 yards. Simms was 6 of 20 for 83 yards with a touchdown and interception and Bray was 8 of 13 for 69 yards with a TD and interception.

Dooley praised junior running back Tauren Poole, who had 94 yards on nine carries in the first scrimmage.

“He’s been a real steady hand at the No. 1 spot,” Dooley said of Poole. “He’s got a lot of work to do to be a good runner, a durable runner and an effective runner, but right now he’s been our most productive runner.”

Eight practices into spring, the quarterback race was narrowed to Simms and Bray after Stephens told Dooley he was leaving the team on April 8.

“In light of the way the first eight practices have gone and some of the competition we’ve created, (Stephens) doesn’t want to be here and risk not playing his senior year,” Dooley noted. “You hate to lose Nick but I certainly understand it. It’s a fifth-year quarterback who hasn’t played. You go play football to play, and I understand the emotion of it.”

Three days after Stephens left the team, Dooley announced a gimmicky move for the Orange and White Game with longtime Knoxville News Sentinel columnist John Adams serving as one coach and veteran newspaper and radio journalist Jimmy Hyams coaching on the other sideline.

“There are many who believe John and Jimmy possess two of the top football minds in East Tennessee,” Dooley explained, perhaps with a hint of sarcasm. “I’m looking forward to watching how they can turn their knowledge into a winning result at Neyland Stadium.”

The April 17 Orange and White game did little to settle the quarterback situation.

Bray, a 2010 January enrollee, led the White team to a 16-7 win and had the statistical edge, completing 18 of 40 passes for 200 yards with no interceptions.

Simms, elevated to No. 1 on the depth chart in practices prior to the spring game, was 12 of 26 for 123 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions. He was sacked five times.

“This game is always kind of tough because, especially in our situation, Matt and Tyler are kind of different in the things they do well,” Dooley said. “It’s hard to really shape a game plan to fit their strengths. That’s why you don’t want to put too much on this game.”

Dooley, however, gave Bray kudos for his spring showing, although not naming him the No. 1 quarterback.

“I was really pleased with his presence out there,” Dooley said of Bray. “He’s really a high school senior. He wasn’t nervous or jittery. He performed the way he has been performing all spring, and that says a lot about him. He made some good throws and he missed some throws. He did a good job.”

Poole was an offensive highlight with 101 all-purpose yards, including three catches for 58 yards.

“I’m really proud of this football team and how they’ve handled themselves over the last two months with the work they have put into our program,” Dooley concluded. “They’ve really embraced some new ways of doing things. Their attitude has been tremendous. Their effort has been great. I’m really pleased with how they’re playing.”

Simms, a junior college transfer and son of former NFL quarterback Phil Simms, won the No. 1 job in fall camp and started the first eight games, after which the Vols were 2-6 overall and 0-5 in the SEC.

In the eighth game, a loss to South Carolina, Simms was on the field through the first offensive series of the second half, but after his fumble was replaced by Bray. Simms was 10 of 13 for 153 yards and a touchdown but wasn’t pleased with being benched.

“I had no idea that I was going to get taken out of the game for that (fumble),” Simms said. “I was playing really well. Extremely well.”

Bray’s first pass against South Carolina was returned for an interception, but he finished 9 of 15 for 159 yards and two touchdowns. He started the last five games and went 4-1 as the starter as Tennessee went 6-7 with a 30-27 double-overtime loss to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl. UT was 3-5 in the SEC with wins over Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt with Bray as the starter.

In nine games, Bray threw for 1,849 yards and 18 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, completing 55.8 percent of his passes. In 11 games, Simms threw for 1,460 yards and eight touchdowns with five interceptions with a 57.9-percent completion percentage.

Poole led the Vols in rushing with 1,034 yards and 11 TD runs.

Bray won the starting job in 2011 fall camp and was the starter before suffering a shoulder injury in the fifth game. Simms took over for Bray but was replaced by Justin Worley after back-to-back losses to No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama. After starting three games, Worley was replaced by Bray for the final two games as the Vols finished 5-7 in 2011.

Bray started all 12 games in 2012 and threw for 3,619 yards, 11th best in a season in SEC history at the time. He just completed his third season as a backup quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Dooley, meanwhile, was fired Nov. 18, 2013, after the Vols lost at Vanderbilt, 41-18, in the next-to-last game of the season. Dooley was wide receivers coach for the Dallas Cowboys for five season (2013-17) and was hired in early January as Missouri’s new offensive coordinator.

Lane Kiffin, Spring 2009

Tennessee began searching for a coach in early November, 2008, when Phillip Fulmer agreed to step down with three games left in a 5-7 season.

UT hired the flamboyant Kiffin, head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2007-08 before getting fired. Kiffin brought in a staff at Tennessee that included his father, longtime NFL assistant Monte Kiffin, along with current LSU coach Ed Orgeron and current Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.

At quarterback, Jonathan Crompton returned for his senior season, having started six games in the up-and-down season of 2008. By the second full scrimmage, when he was 8 of 11 passing for 91 yards, Crompton had all but locked down the starter’s job over Stephens and sophomore B.J. Coleman.

“I thought Jonathan did really well,” Kiffin said. “He moved around and made some plays, and B.J. did well the last series and made some plays when things weren’t there.”

Poole, a sophomore battling senior Montario Hardesty for the starting tailback job, led the rushing with 80 yards on 11 carries in the second scrimmage. “(Poole) is really one of the leaders of our team,” Kiffin added. “He is one of our guys.”

For the 2009 Orange and White game, it was offense vs. defense. Before the game, Kiffin had a Fan Appreciation Day and Vol Walk. In Kiffin’s scoring system, the offense finished off spring with a 41-23 win on April 18.

Crompton completed 14 of 27 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown to Austin Rogers. Coleman was 13 for 22 for 160 yards and two TDs – one to Brandon Warren and another to Quintin Hancock. Stephens also threw a short TD pass to Warren.

“It was really powerful today the way people came out and supported us,” Kiffin noted. “It was huge, and as far as the scrimmage went, I’m really excited about the (lack of) turnovers, one turnover, and a full game for the most part, was really good to see. And it wasn’t Jonathan’s fault on the interception. We kind of broke something a little different, so I was pleased with that.

“I’m sure you can tell the scrimmage was set up for the offense a little bit because we didn’t want to show very much. The game is going to be rerun on TV, so that’s a powerful tool for our opponents, especially early in the year, so our defense was very vanilla and our offense was very vanilla today. When you do that, it does help the offense.”

Kiffin said Warren, the former Alcoa High School star, had a bright future with the Vols.

“I think it is a pretty powerful story,” Kiffin said. “Here is somebody that wasn’t doing everything right, wasn’t doing things that we felt (he needed) to be a great player, which is off the field. … I like the story of the way Brandon responded.”

Warren, a 2006 Freshman All-American at Florida State, left the Seminoles after his freshman year and was denied a release to transfer to Tennessee. He joined the Vols in 2008 and had 10 catches for 85 yards but was kicked off the team on Oct. 5, 2009 after an outburst with receivers coach Frank Wilson during a loss to Auburn two days earlier.

With Crompton as the starter in 2009, the Vols went 7-6, 4-4 in the SEC, with a 37-14 loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Crompton threw for 2,800 yards with 27 TDs and 13 interceptions, completing 58.3 percent of his passes.

Hardesty beat out Poole for the starting tailback’s job in fall camp and led the team in rushing with 1,345 yards, 13 touchdowns. Poole had only 10 carries for 85 yards before earning the starter’s job in 2010 under Dooley, his third coach in three years.

Crompton was drafted by the San Diego Chargers in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft (168th overall) and spent three seasons (2010-12) in the NFL with the Chargers, New England Patriots and the Washington Redskins. He played the next three seasons (2013-15) in the Canadian Football League before retiring.

Hardesty was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft (59th overall) but suffered a torn ACL in a preseason game and missed the entire season. He played in 23 games with five starts the next two seasons, rushing for 537 yards and a touchdown, before being placed on injured reserve in preseason 2013, ending his career.

Can we ever forget Kiffin’s departure from Tennessee?

It was Jan. 12, a Tuesday night, and Kiffin told his players he was leaving for USC in an emotion-filled room in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center. Kiffin then held a brief press conference and issued a statement before retreating out the back door of the building as reporters shouted questions toward him. Meanwhile, groups of angry students and fans surrounded the complex as the news leaked Kiffin was leaving for USC. It eventually became a mob-like scene with police barricading Johnny Majors Drive in front of the Tennessee sports complex.

Kiffin was gone in the dark of night, but not forgotten by a long shot. Now the head coach at Florida Atlantic University, Kiffin still trolls Tennessee football and its fans on social media, a lingering reminder of his 14 months in Knoxville.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in the Knoxville area.