When the Tennessee Vols failed to win the SEC East in 2016 (with their most talented team of the decade), the majority of the blame was placed on UT’s inability to stay healthy late in the season.

A year ago, in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season as the program’s head football coach, it was the same story. Tennessee entered the final two weeks of the season with a 5-5 record.

The Vols, however, were banged up and exhausted in the finals weeks of the 2018 season. Tennessee ended up losing the last two games of the year — against Missouri and Vanderbilt — by a combined 58 points.

UT is a similar situation in 2019 — they’re 5-5 entering the final two weeks of the season with games against Missouri and Vanderbilt remaining.

But unlike last season, the Vols are relatively healthy as they attempt to become bowl eligible for the first time in three years.

Pruitt told reporters this week that he expects Tennessee to be at full strength against Missouri.

“We should have everybody Saturday”, Pruitt said after practice on Wednesday. The second year Vols head coach added “We got guys that are banged up from the last game, but having a week off we tried to get them ready to play, but at the same time use common sense.”

While Pruitt has been careful to avoid players getting hurt at practice, it doesn’t mean Tennessee is sleepwalking its way through game preparation. Pruitt mentioned that his team had their best practices of the season this week.

“The speed of practice, the physicality of practice is improving every day. And I would probably say, the last two days have been our best practices all year.”

So how have the Vols avoided the injury plague that’s been lingering around the program the last decade?

I think it all comes down to strength coach Craig Fitzgerald.

For the first time in years, Tennessee has some consistency in the weight room. Fitzgerald has been with the program since the month after Pruitt was announced as the program’s new head coach. And he stuck with the program a year ago when Maryland — where Fitzgerald played college football — came calling.

Now, after nearly two years of running Tennessee’s strength and conditioning program, Fitzgerald has UT’s football team in incredible shape. As a result, the Vols are a faster, stronger, and healthier team.

Tennessee went through some dark days when Butch Jones was the head coach. The Vols essentially didn’t have a strength coach in 2016 after Jones parted ways with Dave Lawson. It’s probably not a coincidence that UT struggled to stay healthy that season. Those dark days, however, have given way to clearing skies.

Injuries — especially freak injuries — are always going to happen. Football is a violent game and it comes with the territory. But Tennessee’s ability to keep the nagging injuries to a minimum this season is a big reason they’re in position to potentially win seven games this season (maybe eight if they reach a bowl game and win).

A lot of things are changing under Jeremy Pruitt and so far it’s all for the better.

Featured image via Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

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