Vol football: Back where we started

Marvin Westwestwords

Good news: Jeremy Pruitt sounds as if he understands the fans’ point of view. He says he has to give us a team that will make us proud.

Perhaps you have noticed that Tennessee football has circled back to where it was when Phillip Fulmer was fired 11 years ago.

The current plan is not new: Continue recruiting better and build on the available base.

Relatively recent Volunteers have endured seven losing seasons. Think about that: Seven. The number seems difficult for Fulmer, legendary coach, now athletics director, much the same person, to grasp.

“In three of the last five years, we had nobody drafted. At Tennessee? Are you kidding? This program, in my time around it, has never been at this place.”

Fact check: Correct.

Fulmer was a player from 1968 through 1971. The Vols had a 38-7-1 record.

He was a graduate assistant coach in 1972-73. Tennessee went 18-6. He went away for a time, to Wichita State and even to Vanderbilt, but came back as Tennessee offensive line coach, 1980-88. John Majors was head coach. His record during this time was 66-35-5. There was one losing season.

Fulmer was offensive coordinator from 1989 to 1992. The Vols were 29-6-2. Four of those victories were eventually credited to Fulmer. His record as head coach was 152-52-1. His final season produced an uncharacteristic 5-7 record.

Pruitt, as you no doubt remember, went 5-7 in his first season. Fulmer never coached a game that looked as bad as the late losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, not even the 62-37 humiliation at Florida. In fact, that one was exciting. There was the lively question of whether the Gators could score 100.

The 2018 Volunteers weren’t very good, but why they collapsed has never been explained. Could be they ran out of gas. Could be they lost interest. Heaven help us if they dreaded the thought of a minor bowl in bad weather and played their way out of that possibility. Ouch.

For whatever reason, the team cost the coaches bowl bonuses. For whatever reason, Tennessee invested heavily in three new coaches. That Fulmer said spend what it takes sounded to me like real seriousness, as in higher intensity.

Improving a little bit on last year should not be too difficult. If the Vols try real hard, there is no obvious excuse to not win six or seven games. There is a reasonable path to eight – if-if-if.

The probability starts with linemen. Several now look more like men of the Southeastern Conference. They are noticeably bigger. They are supposedly stronger. I don’t know about hair on their chests, but they are undoubtedly wiser in the ways of hand-to-hand combat.

Freshman five-star offensive tackles Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright look exactly like players – of the future. That they will have to play, perhaps start, in September is sobering. Neither Gainesville nor Tuscaloosa offers very friendly football kindergartens.

Here is a troublesome clue about the defensive front: Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon is likely first team if he gets an NCAA waiver and immediate eligibility. If he doesn’t …

Junior-college recruits are supposed to be ready for the opening kickoff. That strikes me as considerable uncertainty.

If the offensive line makes measurable progress, the offense will be more productive. If the interior defensive front can hold its own, ends and linebackers will look better.

Receivers should be the strongest position. Talented corners are that proverbial one year older. Jarrett Guarantano, less pressured, might be good enough. Nobody projects him as all-SEC, but he is not the weak link.

A better team than last year is more than a goal. It is a necessity. Seven disappointing seasons are more than enough. An eighth below minimum bowl standards is unacceptable. This is Tennessee.

Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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