Not that long ago, the Tennessee Vols were universally known as “wide receiver U”.
But over the last decade, thanks to the downfall of the program after the dismissal of Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee’s reputation as a factory for NFL wide receivers has waned.
While I’m sure the Vols will eventually start funneling plenty of wide receivers to the NFL like they did during their glory days, I have no idea if they’ll be able to regain the moniker of “wide receiver U”.
However, I do think Tennessee is on the verge of becoming “defensive back U”.
And it’s all because of Jeremy Pruitt and Derrick Ansley — two of the best defensive backs coaches in all of football.
Pruitt has already proved his worth as someone who can develop defensive backs at a high level. He did it with elite talent at Florida State, Georgia and Alabama. And he’s already doing it at Tennessee.
Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson were two of the Vols’ most important players in 2018. They were both true freshmen who unexpectedly made a massive impact in Tennessee’s secondary.
Taylor was expected to play wide receiver and Thompson was essentially left without a spot at South Carolina (he signed with UT more than a month after signing day in early 2018).
I don’t think anyone thought either of those two players would be starting for the Vols last fall. But they did. And they played well.
Here are the highest-graded true freshman cornerbacks from the Power-5 conferences this season, headlined by Bryce Thompson from Tennessee. pic.twitter.com/hOUKBZSHhX
— PFF College (@PFF_College) February 13, 2019
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 15, 2018
If Pruitt did that with a couple of players who weren’t expected to contribute in that manner, imagine what he will do as the Vols begin to recruit at a higher level.
And imagine how much recruiting will improve because of Pruitt’s reputation with defensive backs. Oh, and let’s not forget the impact that Ansley will have on the field and in recruiting.
It’s easy to see why I think Tennessee is on the verge of becoming “defensive back U”.
Highly rated recruits are already starting to take notice of what’s possible at Tennessee with Pruitt and Ansley.
Four-star junior college transfer Art Green, who committed to UT on Monday, told 247Sports that the presence of Pruitt and Ansley was a key factor in his decision, saying “I mean, with a coaching staff like that, with a lot of experience like they have, I feel like you can get anywhere you want to go”.
“Anywhere you want to go” — that’s a key phrase that’s incredibly important in recruiting. Elite recruits want to get to the next level. They’re going to sign with programs who they know can get them there.
This is just the beginning for the Vols under Pruitt. The quality of Tennessee’s secondary is only going to continue to get better from here.
That should be a scary thought to the rest of the SEC East. The Vols might not strike a lot of fear in other programs at the moment, but they’re at the same place that every elite program has been at some point — they’ve been down, but they’re starting to climb their way up from the bottom.
It won’t be long before “defensive back U” is how Tennessee is described on a routine basis. Just watch.
Featured image via Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports