If this is Pruitt crossroads, which way will he go?

Marvin Westwestwords

It is truly amazing that former SEC doormat Arkansas has emerged as a pivotal game in Jeremy Pruitt’s three-year coaching career. Let us be careful not to jump to conclusions.

Some day you may look back at the middle of the Tennessee 2020 schedule and concede that this was the crossroads. As of now, we have no way of knowing which way Jeremy will go.

He may clear up confusion, establish team identity, inspire more enthusiasm and go on to greatness. Or, this could be the beginning of the end.

So far, the Pruitt period has been a continuation of the past. The Vols were 62-63 for the decade preceding his arrival. He is 15-15 for his two and a half seasons.

This team is 2-3, one down from expectations. Arkansas is much improved but Saturday in Fayetteville won’t be the most difficult remaining assignment.

If this turns into a losing season for Tennessee, what will be the explanation? Three years for reconstruction is just not enough? The inheritance was really bad? So, how come Butch Jones’ leftovers are still playing?

Pass defense didn’t mesh? Why not? Vol quarterback was inconsistent? Where were the options? No pressure on rival quarterbacks? Please explain. Offensive and defensive lines were disappointing? How come?

Missed tackles, missed assignments, wrong routes, too many turnovers, crucial penalties?

Sometime between now and then, whenever then is, whether the coach is famous or fired, he really should decide where he is trying to go and how he proposes to get there.

Down deep, Pruitt believes in the Alabama strategy of times past, protect and control the football and play defense. His offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney, is the same Jim Chaney who once had Drew Brees throw the ball 85 times in one Purdue game against Wisconsin.

More conservative leadership and other stumbling blocks forced Chaney toward moderation. He hasn’t been blessed with another Drew Brees. Perhaps you have noticed that Jarrett Guarantano is not one.

Pruitt, 47, has already had a long time to make up his mind. This is his 24th season as a coach. Time well spent as defensive coordinator at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama was the perfect time to figure out which offensive concepts caused him the most trouble.

Jeremy was so good as a defensive strategist (with excellent players) that he must have known he would become a head coach. He didn’t have the ideal personality or language training but few have been better prepared in fundamentals. And, he could recruit.

He was in the right place. Opportunity was sure to knock.

Pruitt had those same years to ponder who he would want as assistant coaches, to be eventually decided, of course, by available funds.

Pruitt got his big break from Phillip Fulmer and almost enough in the staff budget to bring back all-time greats from the hall of fame.

Choice of helpers is of career importance. Friends are probably better picks than enemies. Logic dictates choosing strengths to offset weaknesses, smarts to fill voids, men who love the game, have similar work habits and recruiting potential.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football. Development is second. Motivation is third. Strategy is fourth.

Too many “yes” men are dangerous. Beginning head coaches need an assistant or three to tell them the truth.

For 2018, Pruitt assembled what some called one of the nation’s top staffs. There were interesting people, including Craig Fitzgerald, director of strength and conditioning. He was supposedly among the elite in his profession.

Will Friend, a Pruitt best friend, became offensive line coach. Kevin Sherrer, another close associate, was chosen as defensive coordinator responsible for inside linebackers.

Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Tyson Helton came from far-out Southern Cal. He and Friend had worked together at Alabama-Birmingham.

Intriguing, indeed, was the background of young Brian Niedermeyer. He was from Eagle River, Alaska, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and East Texas Baptist University but showed genius possibilities as a tireless traveling salesman.

Tracy Rocker, defensive line coach, brought big-time credentials. David Johnson provided Memphis connections. Chris Rumph and Charles Kelly had a lot of experience.

Former Vol Terry Fair was chosen to coach defensive backs. That job came with a blinking caution light. Pruitt was and is the resident expert on coaching defensive backs.

Robert Gillespie was the holdover from Butch’s staff. He departed five days after national signing day. Chris Weinke, former quarterback with a Heisman Trophy in his case, became coach of running backs. That was strange.

If you are keeping count, Helton, Sherrer, Rocker, Rumph, Kelly, Johnson, Fair, Fitzgerald and others don’t work here anymore. For the most part, the merry-go-round was trial and error.

The 2019 reorganization was made of money, $1.5 million for Chaney and $1 million for Derrick Ansley, coaxed from the NFL to be co-defensive coordinator with Pruitt. Tee Martin came home at a bargain price because Southern Cal was still making contributions.

Big new names this year were Jimmy Brumbaugh and ex-Vol Jay Graham.

Brumbaugh, on the recommendation of Ansley, got a hefty raise and a title to move from Colorado. Graham came from Texas A&M. Joe Osovet, former junior college championship coach, moved to the field from an analyst role. Shelton Felton, another former analyst, was retrieved from Akron. He was once a Georgia high school coach of some renown.

Pruitt fired Brumbaugh the day after the humbling loss to Kentucky. The head coach supposedly decided soon after Jimmy arrived that they didn’t fit philosophically. That isn’t trivial. We don’t know why Pruitt didn’t do a background check.

Pruitt calls on the Volunteers for consistency. Fussing fans and vicious foes are sounding the alarm, saying the coach could use a bit more inside his organization.

Success depends on so many other elements. How the team plays is relevant. Results matter most. Winning at Arkansas is very important.

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

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