It’s football time in Tennessee

Marvin Westwestwords

A beautiful basketball season is finished. Today the game changes. To quote the great John Ward, it is football time in Tennessee.


Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams can take a bow but please stand over there. Spirited speculation about blocking and tackling is the new topic of the day. Guarded optimism is ready to break out like jonquils and tulips, with one eye on the weather. Alas, there are many nagging questions for new coach Jeremy Pruitt, from thousands of hopeful fans.

If you believe the worst is past, that better days are actually coming, the obvious question is when. Spring practice won’t provide dependable answers but there will be clues.

There is undoubtedly some talent buried on this roster, hidden from view, but there are no returning all-stars. Offensive lineman Trey Smith is inactive, receiving treatment or deciding what to do about a mysterious medical condition.

Bad boy Jauan Jennings, fortunate to have avoided Siberia, has been forgiven and is now recovering from leg repairs. His August return is important.

The proposed power running game is missing key components. Remnants of the defense that gave up thousands of yards (near world records) await major reconstruction.

There might be sufficient linebackers if they all pass physicals. The kicking game figures to take a step back but should be adequate.

We have been told it is impossible to win without a quarterback. So, who gets that job, the gritty guy who was often knocked down but kept getting up, or the graduate transfer with the Stanford IQ who undoubtedly analyzed Tennessee troubles before taking the risk?

Jarrett Guarantano and Will McBride lead those available now. Keller Chryst and JT Shrout, oldest and youngest candidates, will be boys of summer. Somebody somewhere will take your bets, bird in hand or bird in bush.

The real race for playing time will begin in August and may continue into the season. Whoever eventually emerges as No. 1 had better be a tough bird, very quick and actually able to fly. Protection has not been high among team strengths.

Other pressing questions await answers. Pruitt’s fame is rooted in defense, as teacher, organizer and strategist. Coaching without cornerbacks will be an interesting challenge.

In a moment of spontaneous combustion, Pruitt snapped back at that implication: “Who says we don’t have cornerbacks?”

I, for one, say there are none established and dependable. The best four departed and some of them weren’t good enough to win.

Minus far greater pressure on rival passers, the Vols’ best chance to avoid further embarrassment will be at least brilliant coverage in the secondary. Flawless would be better.

Do what? Oh, you expect somebody will rush the quarterback. Well, that hasn’t happened lately.

I remember when I thought Jonathan Kongbo was the answer to that little deficiency. He isn’t as ferocious as Derek Barnett or as stout as was Reggie White but he looked like a football playmaker. My bad. And Kongbo’s, I suppose, to some extent.

Fortunately, he has one remaining season to live up to expectations. NFL scouts are holding their breath.

Others are fortunate to have a clean slate and fresh start. Offensive lineman Drew Richmond has not achieved greatness. There must be wide receivers that can play better than they have.

Defensive tackle Alexis Johnson was a four-star plug-and-play recruit from junior college who missed too much of 2016 while fighting criminal charges. When he was cleared to participate, and when the Vols ran out of tackles and really needed him, he suffered an injury.

He was better last season. He now needs to be best.

Tyler Byrd is a poster person for fresh starts. I thought he was a defensive back all along but the previous coaching staff insisted he was a receiver. He didn’t do much as a freshman and less as a sophomore. Empty spaces in the secondary have created a golden opportunity.

Other random thoughts, past and present tense …

Last season was as bad as the record, truly awful.

Injuries were a devastating factor late in the year but the team was not good, even at the beginning.

Butch was a fine traveling salesman but he guessed wrong on too many prospect evaluations and several assistants. It was a critical blunder to allow veteran players to make too many decisions. The first change of strength coaches was an example.

The Vols have undergone or are in the process of undergoing a change in culture and attitude. That could result in a change in altitude. There is a chance these Vols will rise up sooner than expected. I can’t tell you how but stranger things have happened.

Indeed, one happened in basketball.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

 

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