Will Jeremy Pruitt be back as the Tennessee Vols’ head coach in 2021?
That’s a question that seemed silly in late September when Pruitt received a two-year extension. It seemed even sillier after the Vols started 2-0 with wins over South Carolina and Missouri.
But now that Tennessee is in the midst of a five-game losing streak, it doesn’t seem quite as preposterous to suggest that Pruitt might not return in 2021.
The Vols have played terribly since beating Missouri in early October. Losses to Kentucky and Arkansas are inexcusable. The other three losses — to Georgia, Alabama, and Auburn — show us evidence of a program that’s nowhere close to competing for SEC East titles.
However, despite Pruitt’s failures this season, it’s likely he returns to UT next season. Firing a coach during a pandemic — when most athletic departments are facing financial shortfalls — doesn’t seem like a road Tennessee wants to go down (especially since Pruitt’s buyout doubled in September).
If the Vols decide to retain Pruitt, there are at least five moves the embattled head coach has to make this offseason to give Tennessee a chance at success in 2021 and beyond.
1. Fire Chris Weinke as quarterbacks coach
This is probably the most obvious move. Chris Weinke has been an absolute disaster as Tennessee’s quarterbacks coach. Jarrett Guarantano hasn’t improved over the last two seasons with Weinke as his position coach. Neither has Brian Maurer or JT Shrout. The Vols have a talented quarterback in true freshman Harrison Bailey and another talented quarterback in commit Kaidon Salter on the way. The Vols would be unwise to let Weinke squander that talent. Pruitt needs to find a quarterbacks coach who can develop talent. I don’t know who that person is, but I know it’s not Chris Weinke.
2. Move Brian Niedermeyer back to tight ends
I like Brian Niedermeyer a lot. He’s a great personality and a great recruiter. The Alaska native is absolutely an asset to Tennessee football. But he’s not an inside linebackers coach. The Vols’ inside linebackers haven’t progressed this season. Jeremy Banks and Quavaris Crouch are great athletes, but they often look lost on the field. Tennessee also can’t cover the middle of the field at all. Pruitt needs a proven coach at such an important position, not someone who has never been an inside linebackers coach before. Moving Niedermeyer back to tight ends would obviously mean moving current tight ends coach Joe Osovet back to an off-the-field role. Osovet hasn’t brought much to the table (Tennessee’s RPO game doesn’t look any different than it has in previous years), so I don’t think this would be much of an issue.
3. Make some offensive staff changes
I don’t know what’s going on with Tennessee’s offense. Jim Chaney is a proven play-caller, but his offense has lacked creativity this season. Is it because Pruitt is micromanaging? Possibly. Pruitt hasn’t been shy about criticizing the offense publicly this season. Whatever the case, it’s clear that Tennessee could use some help in the coaches’ box during games. The Vols have a great asset in former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long, who is serving as an analyst. Long could probably do a better job than Chaney, but it’s not like Chaney can just be fired (money being the issue, of course). Maybe the Vols can promote Long to a co-offensive coordinator role and let Chaney coach quarterbacks (it would be an improvement over Weinke). I’m not sure how it would all work out, but Pruitt has some options here. He needs to utilize the coaching talent he has at his disposal. Long is too good of a coach to be wasting away as an analyst — especially when UT needs some offensive creativity.
4. Move on from Derrick Ansley
I loved the decision to hire Derrick Ansley as the Vols’ defensive coordinator after the 2018 season. But the move isn’t working out so far. The Vols’ defense has been a major disappointment this season — especially the secondary (which is supposed to be Pruitt and Ansley’s specialty). Why is it not working out? For one, Ansley is a first-time defensive coordinator. This staff has too many “first-time” coaches. The Vols need someone experienced. I also have a feeling that Pruitt is injecting his opinion a bit too much and not letting the defensive coordinator have autonomy. A more experienced defensive coordinator would certainly help with both of those problems. Pruitt and former South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp know each other quite well. I’d make a run at Muschamp if I were Pruitt.
5. Pursue a grad transfer quarterback
Look, I know that Harrison Bailey is supposed to be the answer for the Vols at quarterback. And if he’s not, then maybe it’s incoming quarterback Kaidon Salter. But Pruitt should know by now that you can never have enough quarterbacks on the roster (just ask Kirby Smart at Georgia, who brought in two transfer quarterbacks this offseason and neither played to start the season). The Vols need more options at quarterback. Another season of mediocrity at the quarterback position will guarantee that Pruitt is no longer the head coach at Tennessee. I like what I’ve seen from Bailey so far, but there’s nothing to indicate he’s going to be the guy that suddenly turns UT’s offense into a juggernaut (maybe he is, we just don’t know yet). Programs like Georgia and LSU haven’t been shy about pursuing quarterback grad transfers every offseason. Tennessee needs to do the same.
Featured image via Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports/Tennessee Athletics