KNOXVILLE — Even after renovations to change the wall graphics and flooring in Tennessee's football offices this offseason, an occasional relic of the previous coaching regime surfaces inside the Anderson Training Center.
"I'm still throwing away random bricks around the office," Danny Stiff, Tennessee's assistant director of player personnel, wrote recently on Twitter.
The "brick-by-brick" foundation laid by former Volunteers coach Butch Jones came crashing down last season, and the slogan — now used by the NFL's Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers — has been the target of jokes from fans and at least one aspiring politician in the state.
Aside from the occasional brick found in its offices, though, the slogans and the shortcomings they now represent are a thing of the past inside the football program.
"Even before Coach Pruitt came, we all just kind of said, 'You know what, last year is last year,'" senior defensive end Kyle Phillips said. "It happened. We can't change it. But what we can change is what we're going to do this upcoming year. Knowing that is going to make us work harder every day to be successful so we don't have the same feeling we did last year."
That work will begin in earnest Friday, when Tennessee holds its first preseason practice under first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt, who inherits a program that finished 4-8 last season.
"The only thing I can assess is the last six months," said Pruitt, who retained none of Jones' assistants. "I wasn't at Tennessee the last 10 years. I've been there for six months. Right now I'd say that from the top down, from the boosters, the fan base, the players, everybody involved in the program, we're all running in the same direction, and we're running as fast as we can. So I think that's what it takes, and that's all we're worried about."
Pruitt exited the spring practice session with harsh criticism for his team's effort in the Orange and White Game. Yet no players transferred, a sign the brutal honesty of their new leader came as welcome change.
"One thing: He does not play," junior receiver Marquez Callaway said. "He's harped a lot on discipline and toughness. That's what we're going to be."
Pruitt has four weeks to instill that discipline and toughness before the Sept. 1 season opener against West Virginia in Charlotte, North Carolina. In the weeks ahead, position battles will be hashed out and hype will bubble up within a fan base thirsting for success as it enters an 11th season since it last celebrated an SEC East division championship.
In the 11 years before the drought began, the Vols won five division titles, two conference championship games and a national title. It's an era Tennessee's current players may be too young to remember well.
Pruitt, a son of the Southeastern Conference, hasn't forgotten those days. He would not have accepted the job without knowing Tennessee is a place capable of winning more than the championships of life Jones attempted to sell in the wake of a missed opportunity to win the division in 2016.
"Coach Pruitt told us that he remembered Tennessee being the top team in the SEC and in the country," Callaway said, recalling the coach's first meeting with his new team in December. "He kept telling us he planned on bringing the university back to where it belongs."
That plan continues as preseason practices grow near. Pruitt will get his closest look yet at something resembling his 2018 roster, and he'll build from there.
No bricks involved.
"Don't look back. Don't look back on what happened," redshirt junior tight end Eli Wolf said. "The only way we're going is forward anyway. So take what happened, learn from it and move on."
1. Who will emerge at cornerback?
Tennessee missed on a few high-profile cornerbacks available late in the 2018 recruiting cycle. That leaves Pruitt and cornerbacks coach Terry Fair to identify and develop at least two capable cornerbacks and a nickel back from a large group of mostly unproven defensive backs. Three established safeties return in Micah Abernathy, Todd Kelly Jr. and Nigel Warrior, but a combined two career starts are all the experience the Vols have back at cornerback. With West Virginia's potent passing attack awaiting, time is short for players such as Baylen Buchanan, Marquill Osborne, Shawn Shamburger, and Alontae Taylor to separate themselves from the pack.
2. How will the QB battle shape up?
Reviewing tape of Keller Chryst's 2017 junior season at Stanford, it's not hard to see why he lost his starting job to the younger, more explosive K.J. Costello last year. It's also easy to see why Chryst might fit what Tennessee's new coaching staff is looking for from its quarterback. In 289 passes at Stanford, Chryst threw only six interceptions, and Pruitt has expressed taking care of the football should be the highest calling for a quarterback on his team. Redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano has more potential than Chryst, who, though never flashy, compiled an 11-2 record as a starter for the Cardinal. Who starts in the season opener might depend on if Guarantano can show enough playmaking ability to override the sense of veteran safety Chryst brings to the competition.
3. How close are a few key players to 100 percent health?
Injuries plagued Tennessee the past two seasons, and there are a few lingering concerns with the 2018 roster that could get answers during the preseason. It will be interesting to see if offensive tackle Chance Hall, a redshirt junior, is healthy enough to participate in practices after undergoing knee surgery. The same goes for offensive lineman K'Rojhn Calbert, a redshirt freshman who could compete for playing time if his knee is fully rehabilitated. Redshirt junior receiver Jauan Jennings, redshirt junior linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and redshirt senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. were each limited or absent from spring practices due to knee injuries. Sophomore offensive linemen Trey Smith is expected to return to contact at some point this month after undergoing treatment for blood clots in his lungs. The collective health of this group of players is crucial.
4. How comfortable are the coordinators?
Preseason practices will not reveal the answer, but it will be a vital time for two first-time Power Five conference coordinators to find comfort with their schemes and personnel at a new school. Offensive coordinator Tyson Helton last called plays in 2015 at Western Kentucky, while defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer last called the defensive shots in 2013 at South Alabama.