You rarely learn a lot from a spring game. After all, it’s a glorified scrimmage, there to give recruits a taste of what a game day is like and the fans a bit of excitement heading into the second half of the off-season. The coaches don’t want to give anything away about their teams just for a scrimmage. But some spring games are more revealing than others.
Tennessee’s Orange & White Game was very revealing in a number of ways, but not in the ways you’d expect. Sure I could go through a list of things I liked and things I didn’t like from the players on the field, but that’s not what I look for in a spring game and especially a spring game right after a tumultuous transition.
I look for other things. I’ll leave all the position breakdowns and play analysis to the guys who do it better than I do, which is pretty much every journalist in Knoxville. What I’m good at spotting are elements that don’t necessarily take place on the field, and there were a few things I took note of that I found interesting.
Like, for example, injuries. Stop for a second and think about this. The Tennessee Volunteers went an entire spring practice cycle without any serious injuries.
How long has it been since anyone’s been able to say that? I’ll give you a minute to think...
I’m watching the Georgia spring game as I write this and I just watched Jake Fromm hang out Riley Ridley to dry on a pass in the end zone that left the WR down after the play. Showy pass, but unnecessary in a spring game and with potentially serious connotations for the real football season. But in Knoxville, the trainers ran out on the field exactly zero times. That tells me the S&C woes are on their way out the door. New strength coach Craig Fitzgerald seems to be on his way to building that bigger, stronger, meaner Vols team that UT fans expect.
As Coach Pruitt mentioned in his post-game press conference today, there were four guys out for the game that were left-over injuries from prior to spring ball, and on a legit game day some of those guys would have been cleared to play. For a squad that’s going to be facing depth issues on some units, that’s outstanding news and should be very reassuring for the long haul, as well. To me, it’s an indication that the past few years of having 25 injuries by mid-October might be in the rear view mirror for real, and that’s huge news.
I also noted that the play-calling demonstrated a definite trend back to what longtime UT fans have always expected from their teams. Fullbacks? How did that happen? QBs under center? Wait…is that still legal?
Quick! Someone bring the crash cart, stat!
Very little razzle-dazzle, and I’m of the opinion that a flea-flicker doesn’t count as razzle-dazzle. Good, sound football fundamentals. And despite SEC Network’s Greg McElroy running around the field in his Boogie Fever-inspired electric blue skinny pants talking about how it’s going to take QB Jarrett Guarantano a long while to learn the pro-style offense this new Volunteers incarnation will run, let’s be serious. With 226 yards passing and 134 yards rushing, the first team offense didn’t seem to have that much trouble figuring a pro-style offense out. That’s because a pro-style offense requires a sound football foundation to run successfully, and those foundations were starting to show during the O&W game.
And finally, investment. There’s no doubt this coaching staff is fully invested in this team — and not themselves. Coach Pruitt’s voice when he spoke about the lack of commitment of some UT players demonstrated spoke volumes.
Elements of that investment could be seen on the field too. Daniel Bituli’s fire and brimstone couldn’t be denied on the sidelines, as he came down hard on the defensive unit for a lackluster performance. Leadership — both on and off the field — can only come from a fully invested player.
Could there be any doubt about Jauan Jennings’s investment? During the Vol Walk and on the sidelines, still not cleared to play, no one was happier to be in a Vols uniform than Jennings. Watching his coiled tension on the sidelines as he watched the game, you could tell he was yearning in every sinew of his body to be out on the field too.
And let’s continue to be honest — the thought of a Marquez Callaway-Jauan Jennings tandem at WR is the kind of thing to make UT fans drool and SEC defensive coordinators wince. Especially when you throw in Austin Pope/Domick Wood-Anderson and Eli Wolf, Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler, Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson.
UT has a lot of options offensively. Hallelujah.
When grad transfer QB Keller Chryst shows up this fall, the quarterback competition is going to be something to keep an eye on. Not just because of who ultimately wins the position between Chryst and Guarantano, but because of how that competition will hone the skills of both players. Competition is healthy, and Coach Pruitt has made it clear that no one has a starting spot on the roster yet. Players have to earn that shot, and make no mistake — whoever is named the starter in any position will have flat smooth earned that place on the field and not in the boardroom.
“I will give my all for Tennessee today” is no longer just a catchphrase. It’s a requirement.
And while there were demonstrable elevations of the team’s investment on the field, there were some observations regarding investment off the field as well. Coach Pruitt noted one of those after the game:
Our fans today were like our football team. Some were here and doing great, some weren’t here for legitimate reasons, and some should have been here and weren’t. That sounds just like our team.
Yes, Coach, it does — coming from one of those should-have-been-there-and-had-legitimate-reasons-not-to-be. Now I personally don’t take offense to this comment, mostly because I agree with him. I don’t hear this comment and think, “Oh wow — Coach just insulted the fan base.”
Instead, Coach Pruitt also learned a few things himself today and not just about the team. He learned valuable lessons about the fans and the condition of Vol Nation after the past ten years.
Just like the team, the fans’ ability to hope has been decimated the past few years. So for a while, it’s understandable that just the bare bones show out when asked. As we get closer to the season, that’ll change.
Just like the team, some fans are asked to change positions just so UT can field a full squad. Turnout for the spring game wasn’t 102,455, but a packed lower bowl and the dulcet sounds of 55–65,000 folks singing “Rocky Top” are one hell of a start.
Just like the team, there are bright moments when the fans can almost see the future. Once all the despair and anger and hopelessness begins to fade, fans will look at the 2018 schedule and think, “Yes, 6–6 is reasonable but I wouldn’t be surprised by 7–5 and maybe, just maybe, there’s a Dobbnail Boot in our future that can get us to 8–4.”
Just like the team, the fans must once again learn the sound foundations of the game and how to best provide that support base to the team in games. Sometimes not everybody’s going to show up to play, but those who do show up aren’t afraid of any game or opponent…ever.
But then, too, the fan base is also a lot like AD Phillip Fulmer.
I know where the bones are buried. I know the good guys…the bad guys…
Vol Nation knows who the good guys are…and where the bad guys’ bones are buried too. Vol Nation knows what it takes to succeed in the SEC. Vol Nation knows what it takes to make a difference in a game. Vol Nation knows what kinds of preparation and hard work are necessary to make a massive transition in a reasonably short period of time.
There’s no reason for anyone to be offended or insulted about Pruitt’s comments, or to try to twist them into a narrative that isn’t the case. Fans learned more about Pruitt; he learned more about the fans.
And at the end of the day, we all know what category of the three the offended folks are probably hailing from. I think, too, that the way Coach Pruitt ended that comment about Vol Nation is the real takeaway from that moment.
I think we all need to look in the mirror and see who we want to be.
That’s a great use of one’s time during the off-season, by the way…for players, coaches and fans.
Any writer or journalist that finds a way to create outrage based upon what Coach Pruitt says is just feeding the same old narrative that’s brought them clicks in the past. Stories like that happen when the media is trying to steer the story back to that unrest because it sells news…makes people click on their links. They’ve learned that an angry UT fan base equals money in this cash for clicks media existing today, so they show a picture of two people sitting alone in the upper bowl and then flat-out state that the attendance the university announced officially is a little exaggerated.
Only by twenty-five thousand people or so.
Buying into that narrative and letting unscrupulous media outlets convince UT fans that the brand new head coach insulted the entire fan base because no one showed up for the spring game is like opening up the mouse hole in the garage wall and inviting vermin right back into the house that was just exterminated.
That’s not covering the story. That’s creating the story, and Vol Nation should know better than to let the rats right back in.
The major takeaway from the Orange and White game is that this is a work in progress, and some of that progress really impressed the heck out of me, at least. I liked what I saw on the field. I liked seeing the lower bowl full of excited fans — and there were a lot more than 40,000 people there. I liked seeing well-crafted, well-run football plays.
And I really liked watching Pruitt’s presser and knowing that for this man, it’s never going to be good enough.
As we head into the slough of despair known as the second half of the off-season, I’m pleased with what I’ve seen so far this spring from the Volunteers. I looked at Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon, and for the first time in a decade had the comforting sense that now things feel like they’re supposed to feel again. Make no mistake: the 2018 season is a rebuilding year, but not in the normal sense of the word.
2018 is about rebuilding the heart of what it means to be Tennessee for all of us — players, coaches, media, and fans. And watching the Jeremy Pruitt era kick off on Saturday, along with this week’s confirmation of the Phillip Fulmer captaincy of the UT Athletics ship, made me quietly confident to be a Tennessee fan again.
I have a feeling the Vols will have at least one surprise for us this fall, and I would not be surprised at all if that surprise came in Charlotte. For the task at hand of rebuilding a football program, I like what Coach Pruitt has brought so far and want to see more. I think UT’s on the right track and I think Pruitt has nothing but the greatest respect for Vol Nation…no matter what the vermin might want you to believe. At the end of the day, though, my biggest takeaway from the Orange and White game is probably the one that gives me the greatest pleasure.
Welcome home, Tennessee football. Great to have you on the way back to where you belong.
Welcome Home, Tennessee Football: Observations from the Vols’ Spring Game was originally published in Orange & White Report on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.