Vols enter new era under Pruitt after dreadful 2017 season

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              FILE - In this April 21, 2018, file photo, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt signals his players during the Orange and White spring game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee is counting on the championship background of new coach Pruitt to help the program bounce back from one of its worst seasons ever. (C.B. Schmelter /Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP, File)
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is counting on the championship background of new coach Jeremy Pruitt to help the program bounce back from one of its worst seasons ever.

Pruitt has been on the staff of five national championship teams at Alabama and Florida State, most recently as the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator last year. He’s trying to bring that championship toughness to Tennessee, which hasn’t earned a Southeastern Conference title since 1998 and hasn’t even reached the league’s championship game since 2007.

“Everybody wants to do it the right way,” Pruitt said. “Lots of folks can do it the right way some of the time, but if you look at the most successful teams, they figure out they have discipline and they find a way to be able to do it all the time, even in the most adverse situations.”

Tennessee did things the right way very little of the time last year.

The Vols are coming off a 4-8 season in which they set a school record for losses and went winless in SEC play for the first time since the league started football competition in 1933. The dismal performance resulted in the firing of Butch Jones , who went 34-27 in five seasons.

They’ll need to improve in a hurry, as they face an unforgiving schedule the first two months of the season. Tennessee opens with West Virginia. Its first five SEC opponents are Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Alabama and South Carolina.

Offensive lineman Brandon Kennedy, a graduate transfer who followed Pruitt from Alabama to Tennessee, believes the Vols aren’t all that far away.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t say we’re missing anything,” Kennedy said. “Coach Pruitt wants us to be physical. He’s bringing that, and we’re all having that mindset every day when we come out and compete.”

Tennessee has plenty of preseason issues. Pruitt must decide on a starting quarterback. The defense is adapting to a switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme. The Vols even must settle on a kicker and punter.

But the biggest concern of all may be how quickly Tennessee adjusts to the new staff’s demands and adopts that grit Pruitt is seeking.

“It’s always an adjustment when you have a new coach,” outside linebacker Darrell Taylor said, “but I think he’s moving us in the right direction toward being tough, being physical, being mentally tough.”

Some other things to watch with Tennessee this season.

QUARTERBACK COMPETITION

Incumbent Jarrett Guarantano is competing with Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst as well as sophomore Will McBride and freshman JT Shrout. Pruitt said after a Sunday scrimmage that nobody has separated himself in the competition .

EXPERIENCED NEWCOMERS

Pruitt has brought in three graduate transfers. Kennedy didn’t play much at Alabama but is a likely starter on Tennessee’s offensive line. He has two years of eligibility left. Chryst is likely Guarantano’s top competition for the quarterback job. Former Michigan State running back Madre London adds depth to the backfield.

ON THE WAY BACK

Tennessee should get a boost from the anticipated return of wide receiver Jauan Jennings, offensive lineman Chance Hall, linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and safety Todd Kelly Jr. Those four guys have 62 career starts between them, but they combined to play just three games due to injury last year. Tennessee also welcomes back arguably its top overall player in offensive lineman Trey Smith , who missed spring practice because of blood clots in his lungs.

SPECIAL TEAMS QUESTIONS

The Vols still must sort out their special teams as they attempt to replace departed kicker Aaron Medley and punter Trevor Daniel. The loss of Daniel will hurt, as Tennessee ranked second among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in net punting last season .

REPLACING KELLY

Tennessee must figure out who will get the majority of carries as the Vols replace Los Angeles Rams sixth-round draft pick John Kelly, who rushed for 778 yards last season. Perhaps the top contender is sophomore Ty Chandler, who ran for 120 yards against Kentucky last year while Kelly was serving a one-game suspension.

SEASON OPENER

Sept. 1 vs. West Virginia at Charlotte, North Carolina.