Tennessee defense facing big test to open Pruitt’s tenure
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s defense will learn in a hurry just how far it has come and how far it still has to go under new coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Pruitt makes his head coaching debut next week after serving as defensive coordinator at Alabama , which led all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense and scoring defense last year during its run to the national title . Pruitt has worked on five different national championship teams — four at Alabama and once as Florida State’s defensive coordinator in 2013.
“You don’t really even have to Google about his stats or anything,” linebacker Quart’e Sapp said. “His name speaks for itself.”
The stats of Tennessee’s season-opening opponent also are impressive.
Tennessee starts Pruitt’s tenure Sept. 1 against No. 17 West Virginia, which has a pair of Associated Press preseason All-America selections in quarterback Will Grier and receiver David Sills. Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns in 11 games last season, while Sills’ 18 touchdown catches tied for the FBS lead .
That means Tennessee won’t get an easy transition as it adjusts from the 4-3 scheme it utilized under former coach Butch Jones to the 3-4 alignment that Pruitt prefers.
“West Virginia’s a great team,” defensive end Kyle Phillips said. “They have great players, great coaches. But we believe that if we play our best, we can beat anybody.”
Pruitt’s defenses have allowed just 14.7 points per game since 2013. Tennessee must show dramatic improvement to get in that neighborhood.
Tennessee yielded 29.1 points per game last season while going 4-8 and setting a school record for losses last season. The Vols allowed 5.4 yards per carry and 251.2 yards rushing per game to rank 125th out of 129 FBS teams in run defense .
The Vols did rank third nationally in yards passing allowed per game , but that was because opposing offenses didn’t throw the ball on Tennessee very often. Tennessee ranked 61st in pass efficiency defense and recorded 22 sacks, the second-lowest total in the SEC .
Tennessee vows it will perform better on defense this year.
Cornerback Baylen Buchanan says Pruitt has given Tennessee more of a physical, “in-your-face” defense. Safety Nigel Warrior says that playing for a coach with Pruitt’s defensive background enables him to “play with my instincts instead of thinking.”
“He knows football,” Buchanan said. “He’s making everybody on the defense smarter.”
But there’s still plenty of work to do.
Pruitt noted that the offensive line dominated much of a scrimmage Saturday and pointed out “that (doesn’t) say much about the defensive front.” Pruitt has said he will probably be making the defensive calls for Tennessee this fall, though former Georgia outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer has the title of defensive coordinator.
This staff has emphasized turnovers. Alabama had a total of 53 takeaways the last two seasons with Pruitt as defensive coordinator. Tennessee forced 39 turnovers during the same period, including just 15 last season.
The Vols realize how ball-hawking skills can help them in the long run.
“If you don’t get the ball out as a defensive player, you don’t make (any) money,” Warrior said. “We want some money, we want the big bucks later on when we go off in the draft. We want to be great, so when you see that football, it’s a moneybag. We need it.”
Even though Tennessee and West Virginia haven’t faced each other before, the Vols understand the scope of next week’s challenge. Grier was Florida’s quarterback when the Gators rallied from a 13-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat Tennessee 28-27 in 2015 .
Moreover, many of the Vols have seen West Virginia on television often enough to know the Mountaineers can score in bunches against just about anyone.
“Growing up, I just always remember West Virginia having like 60 points on the board all the time,” Phillips said. “That was something I noticed, playing West Virginia, that our defense is going to have to be on point to win.”