Jeremy Pruitt focused on 2019 season as Vols kick off spring practice

Tennessee freshman defensive back Jaylen McCollough hauls in a pass during Thursday's practice at Haslem Field.
photo Tennessee freshman offensive lineman Wanya Morris (64) prepares to block tight end James Brown (84) during a drill during Thursday's practice at Haslem Field.
photo Tennessee junior defensive back Theo Jackson leaps high, but misses a pass during Thursday's practice at Haslem Field.

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt is all in on the 2019 season.

Which means no more looking back at anything from 2018.

The Volunteers held their first spring practice of the year Thursday at Haslem Field, and when Pruitt was asked afterward about the difference compared to last spring, his response included "I can't remember what I had for breakfast last week."

Later, when asked another question about 2018, his first season with the program, he said, "We had our shots last year.

"It's over with. There's nothing we can do about it, so I'm not going to talk about it anymore. We're going to worry about next year; it's the only thing we have control over."

The Vols will have 13 more practices before finishing their spring session with the Orange and White game April 13 at Neyland Stadium.

With a lot of players back from last year, there isn't much in the way of Pruitt-preferred practice habits that has to be taught. Seven of the Vols' 10 early enrollees are going through practice - in addition to offensive lineman Chris Akporoghene being out as expected and previously reported, running back Eric Gray and defensive back Tyus Fields didn't participate Thursday - but otherwise Pruitt has a group that understands what is being asked and how to go about doing it.

The Vols were able to end practice "early" Thursday due to what Pruitt called the offense "doing a good job."

"The offense sets the tempo for practice," he said.

There was little in the form of surprise Thursday. Quavaris Crouch, an early enrollee who was rated a four-star prospect and was expected to work at outside linebacker, is starting the spring with the inside linebackers due to a lack of numbers at that position. Jeremy Banks, who bounced between running back and linebacker a year ago, was at running back again.

A new comfort level among the team was evident as Pruitt was able to just oversee practice, allowing offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley and receivers coach Tee Martin - all hired in the offseason - room to work. Having so many players back from last season who knew the routine also made for a smoother practice.

"I think everybody on our football team has a plan to improve as a player this spring as a unit," Pruitt said. "I think the guys have started working hard to do that. They've done a good job so far. It was the first day of practice, and we'll see where it goes tomorrow."

O-line growth

The biggest gains on the offensive line are just that: the biggest gains on the offensive line.

Nathan Niehaus, who started six games last year, was listed at 287 pounds last season but is up to 304 now. Pruitt said Niehaus has "put on 40 pounds in a year," noting Riley Locklear has added "25 to 30" and Marcus Tatum the same. The latter was listed at 265 when he got to Tennessee in 2016 but is now listed at 308.

"They need it," Pruitt said of the weight gain. "Some of these guys could gain 25 more. I think it will help. The offensive line is a developmental position. When you sign a scholarship to play offensive line in the SEC, it's going to take three years to where you're big enough to actually play.

"A lot of these guys are in their third or fourth year, so they're big enough now to be effective."

Injury report

The Vols started their spring without the services of a handful of players, including previously mentioned early enrollees Akporoghene, Gray and Fields.

Senior linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., redshirt freshman defensive lineman Kurott Garland and sophomore offensive lineman Trey Smith did not practice Thursday. Senior center Brandon Kennedy, who started the 2018 opener against West Virginia but was injured the following week in practice, was held out, but Pruitt said the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder "could go if it was a game."

While Kirkland and Smith won't be available this spring, it's possible the others could be.

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