KNOXVILLE — Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt won the offseason with recruiting and staff moves.
The next step in winning on the field starts Thursday.
After going 5-7 in 2018, Pruitt's first season, the Volunteers will begin their spring with the first of 15 practices. They will practice five times before taking March 18-22 off for spring break, then have nine more practices before the Orange and White spring game April 13 at Neyland Stadium.
Since a disappointing 38-13 loss at Vanderbilt to end the season, Pruitt has replaced his offensive coordinator, tabbing former Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to replace Tyson Helton, who left to become head coach at Western Kentucky. Pruitt also hired former Vols standout Tee Martin, the quarterback of the 1998 national championship team, to become wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator. And he plucked Derrick Ansley away from his position as secondary coach with the NFL's Oakland Raiders to become the Vols' defensive coordinator.
On top of that, Pruitt brought in a top-level recruiting class ranked in the top 12 in the country by all major publications.
So yes, excitement is high regarding the program.
But will it translate?
The Times Free Press looks at five key questions going into the spring:
1. Can the early enrollees help immediately?
The benefit to the Vols and their 10 signees who enrolled early, arriving five months before other recruits, is their chance to start to grasp college life and go through spring practices and other offseason work. Nine of those players will be participating in the opening spring practice — offensive lineman Chris Akporoghene will miss some time due to having undergone a knee procedure — and with the Vols having some depth concerns, opportunities to get on the field and make a good early impression will be there.
2. How about that offensive line depth?
Pruitt was concerned coming into last season about the lack of quality bodies up front, and due to injuries, those concerns remain entering the spring. Akporoghene will be back eventually, but Tanner Antonutti, Devante Brooks and Chance Hall had to give up football for medical reasons. Trey Smith, the team's best offensive lineman in 2017, has been recovering from blood clots and isn't available. Drew Richmond, a three-year starter, entered his name in the transfer portal and isn't expected to return. Brandon Kennedy, the team's starting center in the 2018 opener, is still working his way back from an injury that happened during practice prior to the second game. Three of the Vols' signees at this position — Jackson Lampley, Melvin McBride and Darnell Wright — won't be on campus until late summer. The spring will be key for the continued recovery of Kennedy, it will be huge for freshman Wanya Morris and it will be big for returning players such as Marcus Tatum, who now weighs more than 300 pounds and is better suited to compete in the Southeastern Conference.
3. Who steps up on the defensive line?
The Vols lost four seniors with a ton of experience on the defensive line. The expected leader of the unit in the spring will be Emmit Gooden, the unit's lone senior. Behind him are players who have shown promise but are largely inexperienced. The Vols signed four linemen, but three of those — Darel Middleton, Elijah Simmons and Savion Williams — won't be on campus until late summer. The fourth, Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon, will go through the spring as he waits to find out if the NCAA will grant him a waiver to make him eligible this season. Regardless, he'll benefit from the reps, as will players such as Matthew Butler, Greg Emerson, Kurott Garland and John Mincey. LaTrell Bumphus, who has bounced from tight end to defensive end, is expected to start the spring on the defensive line.
4. What about Jarrett Guarantano's growth?
It's been an up-and-down first two college seasons for Guarantano, who enters 2019 with his fourth offensive coordinator since he joined the program. He threw just 12 touchdowns in first first season as the full-time starting quarterback, but he also threw just three interceptions. Pro Football Focus rated him the fifth-best quarterback in the SEC. He won't be competing for the starting job this spring, and with the ability to focus on taking all the key snaps in practice, he will have opportunities to grow. It doesn't hurt that he has Chaney, who has a proven track record of developing quarterbacks.
5. And what about those coordinators?
As a first-year coach, Pruitt wasn't always able to relinquish control. He has a defensive background, so he had his hands in calling the defensive plays. Late in the season, he was probably a little too involved in the offensive side of things. He trusts Chaney, and he trusts Ansley. Having that trust in each individual's abilities to do his job will give Pruitt the opportunity to be the head coach and let the coordinators do their jobs.