KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt’s track record suggests the Volunteers eventually should have a dramatic improvement from their defense.
The question is how long it will take.
Pruitt, a former Alabama defensive coordinator , inherits a defense that ranked 125th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision teams against the run last season. Tennessee also is adapting to a switch from former coach Butch Jones’ 4-3 scheme to the 3-4 alignment favored by Pruitt.
An even bigger adjustment might involve adopting the mentality Pruitt expects from his defensive players.
“It’ll definitely take a while, just because it’s a different culture,” defensive end Kyle Phillips said Wednesday. “I believe that’s why everybody has to buy in, me included, being a senior and being a leader for this upcoming season, just getting everybody to buy into what Coach Pruitt’s preaching. And I think we’ll be good then.”
Pruitt’s Alabama defense allowed the fewest points and yards per game of any Football Bowl Subdivision program last year, but he isn’t working with nearly as much talent this year.
Six players from last year’s Alabama defense were first-team or second-team all-Southeastern Conference selections . That defense featured Minkah Fitzpatrick, Rashaan Evans and Da’Ron Payne, who are all regarded as likely first-round picks in this month’s NFL draft.
Tennessee didn’t have a single defensive player earn first-team or second-team all-SEC honors last year and lost arguably its top defender when Rashaan Gaulden bypassed his senior season to enter the draft . Pruitt noted after Tennessee’s Saturday scrimmage that ball carriers generally weren’t getting tackled the first time a defender grabbed them.
“Obviously if they’re not going down on first contact, the defense needs to do a better job of wrapping up and tackling,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt noticed improvement in Tuesday’s practice and said defensive players were more physical and did a better job of running to the ball. Those are the kinds of baby steps Tennessee must take to gradually develop into the kind of defense Pruitt is accustomed to having.
Defensive tackle Shy Tuttle says the biggest adjustment involves the new scheme.
“You’ve got a whole other lingo the coaches came in and use,” Tuttle said. “That’s pretty tough on everyone. You throw out what you learned in the past and pick up a new playbook.”
Pruitt and Phillips downplayed the complexity of the scheme change, with Phillips saying that “it’s just football.” Phillips said the biggest adjustment involves the “different culture” that this staff has brought.
“I think it’s a good adjustment,” Phillips said. “I believe this coaching staff has been marking on being disciplined, being focused, having toughness, playing for four quarters. I think that’s going to help us moving forward.”
Pruitt’s defenses have succeeded wherever he’s been.
He was defensive coordinator for Florida State’s 2013 and Alabama’s 2017 national championship teams . Pruitt also was on Alabama’s staff during the Crimson Tide’s 2009, 2011 and 2012 national title runs. Georgia was ranked seventh in total defense and eighth in scoring defense in 2015, his final season as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator.
“He’s won a lot of championships and sent a bunch of people to the NFL,” Tuttle said. “I hope he can help me and the teammates around me.”
This year could represent Pruitt’s toughest challenge. Tennessee went 4-8 last season while setting a school record for losses and going winless in Southeastern Conference competition for the first time ever.
Pruitt’s search for solutions has been evident in how he’s experimented with players at different positions.
His latest attempts at mixing and matching came Tuesday.
Alontae Taylor lined up at cornerback after starting the spring at receiver. Princeton Fant was working out at linebacker after spending most of the spring at running back. Tight end LaTrell Bumphus was practicing on the defensive line. Tyler Byrd, who had moved from wide receiver to the secondary this spring, was back at receiver. Defensive linemen Greg Emerson, Matthew Butler and Eric Crosby were working out on the offensive line.
Pruitt said he will continue trying to discover where players fit best and hasn’t ruled out the possibility of using some guys on both offense and defense.
“I go back to my high school background,” Pruitt said. “Sometimes you have to play guys on both sides of the all. When it comes down to the last two minutes, I like to have the best players on the field.”
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