New staff offers second chance for Tennessee’s upperclassmen
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s hopes for a quick resurgence rest in part on its upperclassmen finally performing up to their recruiting rankings.
The Volunteers return 18 juniors or seniors who arrived as four-star or five-star prospects, according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports . None have earned all-Southeastern Conference honors.
A new coaching staff gives them the opportunity to reboot their careers.
“It’s a fresh start for everybody, a clean slate, new coaches here who didn’t recruit you and stuff,” senior defensive tackle Shy Tuttle said. “Like they said when they got here, positions are up for grabs.”
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt says all players will get the same number of reps in camp regardless of what they’ve done in the past. That means a fresh start for everyone.
“We have lot of competition, which is great,” Pruitt said. “We needed competition, and we’re going to have it this fall camp. It will be exciting for me to see how guys respond and who can be consistent in their performance day in and day out.”
Perhaps that will provide a spark.
Tennessee returns seven juniors or seniors who signed out of high school as top-100 national recruits according to the 247Sports Composite. The Vols also have senior outside linebacker Jonathan Kongbo, rated as the nation’s top junior-college prospect in his class .
Even with all that talent, Tennessee went 4-8 last season and failed to win a Southeastern Conference game for the first time since that league started football competition in 1933.
“I feel like in my Tennessee career, it’s been a hard four years, going on four years, for me,” redshirt junior offensive tackle Drew Richmond said. There has been “a lot of criticism and everything. But I’m blessed I’m still here, you know what I mean? A lot of people aren’t here anymore. I’m still here.”
Richmond, rated by Rivals as a five-star recruit , has started 13 games over the last two seasons while struggling with consistency. He acknowledged feeling pressure to live up to his impressive recruiting ranking earlier in his career.
“Of course I did,” Richmond said. “Now it’s water under the bridge.”
The former top-100 recruit with the most career starts is senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. He led the Volunteers in tackles in 2016 but appeared in just two games last year due to a knee injury and now must battle for playing time. Injuries have hampered the progress of other former prize recruits such as Tuttle and senior defensive lineman Kyle Phillips.
Others simply haven’t developed.
Former Tennessee coach Butch Jones acquired a reputation as a solid recruiter who wasn’t able to utilize talent well enough. SEC Network analyst and former LSU defensive lineman Marcus Spears said “that criticism is fair based on what we saw during his time there.”
Barton Simmons, the director of scouting for 247Sports, said Jones’ staff may have spent too much time recruiting based on star ratings and praising prospects rather than how players fit. Simmons said Jones got “a lot of guys that enjoyed recruiting more than they enjoyed football.”
While many of these upperclassmen have struggled to live up to their billing, Spears noted the coaching change offers them a second chance.
“It depends on how they look at it,” Spears said. “I think if you’re a player, you look at it as an opportunity to make an impression on a new coaching staff. That’s the positive outlook. If you say, ‘This is too much for me. I like the old way better,’ then playing for Jeremy Pruitt is probably going to be tough for you, to say the least.”
Pruitt has worked on the staff of five national championship teams at Alabama and Florida State. Simmons said Pruitt’s background suggests he can “squeeze some juice out of guys that have maybe underachieved to date.”
“There are still, to me, players on that roster with the talent to be impact SEC guys if they’re developed the right way and put in position on the field to be successful,” Simmons said.