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In this 2019 file photo, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt talks to a player in the second half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

College football coaches love to coach. Especially when they've been cooped up all winter watching it rain and snow as the wind blows cold.

And so it was that the first words from third-year Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt's lips following the Volunteers' first 2020 spring practice Tuesday afternoon were as follows: "Exciting to get back out there on the grass."

Just so you know, that was wet grass, too, another rainy day having descended on the Volunteer State.

Odds are, the entirety of Big Orange Nation is searching for something exciting enough from spring football these days to give it reason to puff out its orange checkerboard overalls. While this hasn't been an awful UT hoops winter on the order of the Wade Houston years, the men's basketball team did go from being the No. 1 team in the land midway through February a year ago to a near-certain NIT squad this time around.

The Lady Vols under first-year coach Kellie (Jolly) Harper haven't been awful (21-10 at this point) but are light years from the program that won three NCAA titles during Harper's time as a player.

The baseball team is 15-2 after Tuesday's win over East Tennessee State but just dropped two of three to Wright State.

The softball team's 14-8 but hasn't yet played a Southeastern Conference game.

Point is, Volniacs the South over need good news to come from the football team's third spring practice under Pruitt — after all, Nick Saban won a national championship at Alabama in his third season there — and he seemed inclined to provide such positivity.

"Lots of enthusiasm," he said of Tuesday's workout. "Everybody seems to know where they're supposed to be. You can see our growth in this offseason. See how our bodies have changed in the last year."

To that end, Pruitt was effusive in his praise of strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald.

"Can't say enough about Craig and his strength staff," he said. "Craig's a guy who's in high demand because he's good at what he does. Several jobs (both college and pro) have come open, but he's decided to stay here."

As if to underscore Fitzgerald's importance, Pruitt observed, "As practice went on, the stronger we got."

Yet as good as all this sounded, what's on almost every Tennessee fan's mind these days is the quarterback position. Will it go to redshirt senior Jarrett Guarantano, who's seemingly been in and out of the doghouse more than Smokey over the years?

What about sophomore Brian Mauer and redshirt soph JT Shrout, who both showed brief moments of promise last season? There's the walk-on Kasim Hill, who briefly starred at Maryland. Then there are the true freshmen Harrison Bailey and Jimmy Holiday.

Said Pruitt, keeping his thoughts private: "All these guys aren't going to do anything but improve. The plan right now is to rep all six guys."

He did say of Guarantano, who led the Vols to six straight victories, including a bowl win over Indiana, to cap an 8-5 season: "Jarrett's played a lot of ball, right? Jarrett's done a lot of good things."

Of course, he soon added, "In this business, and this goes for players and coaches, you're only as good as your last game."

He also noted, "There needs to be a lot of growth this spring on the offensive side."

That wasn't all he touched on during a news conference that lasted 18 minutes and 55 seconds.

Pruitt mentioned that "this is a big spring for (linebacker) JJ (Peterson)," who was a highly touted recruit two years ago but has yet to have much game action.

Further referencing that linebacker position in general he noted, "There are four or five guys who aren't here yet who will create some competition there."

He seems far more pleased than during his first season with the interior line prospects on both sides of the ball, especially defense.

What he didn't comment on was the late Saturday night shooting incident involving redshirt sophomore defensive back Brandon Davis, who reportedly suffered a gunshot wound to his upper left leg while inside the Uptown Bar & Grill near UT's campus. Some have reported that the wound may have been self-inflicted.

The only statement from the university reads as follows: "We are thankful that Brandon's injuries were minor, and he is expected to make a full recovery. We are gathering information as it becomes available."

Pruitt's thoughts beyond football were understandably focused on the tornado tragedies in and around Nashville and Cookeville last week, the coach saying, "Unfortunately, there was loss of life. It makes you realize how important your family is. That's something that our kids have really been focused on, trying to be involved in some way with helping the victims, and that's something that we'll continue to do."

For the entire Big Orange family it once more has been brought home that there are, at least occasionally, more important things than UT football. But as any social media outlet will let you know this time of year, football is never far from the fans' hearts and minds, especially in those early springs when basketball has failed to provide a suitable distraction.

"When you compare the last two (seasons), we're further along now, which we should be with the experience that we have coming back," Pruitt said. "I think our kids are excited to be back out there, and we've had a great offseason."

If all that experience leads to a great 2020 regular season, the excitement for Pruitt should reach a Rocky Top high not seen around Volsville since the 1990s glory days of Peyton Manning, Al Wilson and Company.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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Mark Wiedmer
 

 

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