KNOXVILLE—Everybody knows Tennessee has a long way to go before it can compete with the elite teams in the SEC. After hearing second-year coach Jeremy Pruitt’s creative description of how far behind one position group is, however, Vols fans may want to buckle up a little tighter.
Even before tackle Emmit Gooden suffered a season-ending knee injury last week, the Vols’ defensive line was going to struggle through growing pains. Following Gooden’s ACL tear, however, none of the players who will fill those roles have significant experience.
Pruitt said that reality reared its ugly head during Sunday’s scrimmage at Neyland Stadium.
Among the problems that were exposed on Sunday were lining up the proper way. A lineman’s alignment and stance often depend on how the offensive backfield looks — even something as nuanced as how close the running back is to the quarterback.
Pruitt said Tennessee is so far behind in that aspect that it’s like most of the players on the defensive line are “still in elementary school.”
“Hopefully next week we can get to junior high and the next week we can get like we’re in high school,” Pruitt said during Tuesday’s post-practice press conference. “Eventually (hopefully we can) be on the college level before the season is over with.”
Pruitt wasn’t done with the similes. He also likened the linemen’s lack of knowledge to someone driving with their eyes closed.
“Shut your eyes while you’re driving down the road and see how well you do,” Pruitt said. “Because if you don’t know the things that I’m talking about and you’re trying to play defensive line, you’re basically playing with your eyes shut, so that’s not real easy to do. We have to do a good job of coaching these guys up and they’ve got to understand it and learn it.”
After a day off Monday, the Vols were back to work and will have another chance to show how much they have learned on Saturday when they scrimmage for a second time.
Here are some of Pruitt’s other takeaways from Sunday’s games:
NO DEPTH CHART
Pruitt said that except for quarterback where Jarrett Guarantano long ago won the job, the Vols have not determined starters at other positions — let alone second and third stringers.
It is a delicate balance, Pruitt added, to choose those players too soon and risk them dialing back during practice because they know they’ve won the job. Players who got significant playing time last season may have a leg up at this point during fall camp, but there are plenty of unproven players who may show they deserve a chance.
They’ll have to make a depth chart eventually, but that won’t be done before the next scrimmage and likely not even in the immediate aftermath.
“When you go to the stadium and scrimmage it’s an opportunity to see how you perform without the coaches out there with you,” Pruitt said. “We had some guys that performed better than others and maybe they weren’t he same guys as when we had practice, so that’s good to see and we’ll see how they respond this week.”
‘NOT BEST DAY’ FOR GUARANTANO
Though Guarantano is the unquestioned starter at quarterback, Pruitt said Sunday’s scrimmage ‘was not his best day.’
The Vols changed the scrimmage format. They started with a third-down period, and Guarantano did not get of to a fast start. He improved as the scrimmage went on, but the biggest thing Pruitt wants to see out of his quarterback is how he affects his teammates.
“The one thing about the quarterback position is Jarrett has the ability to make the guys around him better, and he has to do that a little bit better,” Pruitt said. “He has had a really good camp and he has to continue to improve every single day.”
BUCHANAN OUT INDEFINITELY
Senior defensive back Baylen Buchanan has been held out of fall camp, and Pruitt said there is no timetable for when he might return. He said doctors have diagnosed Buchanan with a narrowing of the spine.
Buchanan, who had 49 tackles, including three for loss, four passes defended, one fumble recovery and one forced fumble last season, has been specialists across the country. Pruitt said doctors are still gathering information and noted that Buchanan still has a redshirt year available.
“One thing we have to figure out is, is this something that he’s had the whole time he’s played, or is this something that has happened right now,” Pruitt said. “Being precautionary, we’ve held him out and we’re going to continue to do that because his safety is our first priority.”