KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football is having a hard time getting up to speed on defense.
“If the other team beats us because they are better than us, that’s one thing,” Vols football coach Jeremy Pruitt said on Tuesday. “When you make mental errors, it’s another. We made a lot of mental errors out there today. It was not very focused in the meetings.
“We did not take what we went over in the meetings onto the field. That probably contributed to some of it.”
That contributed to a lot of Tennessee’s problems last season.
It’s still very early in spring camp, but if there’s one thing that has become obvious, it’s that Pruitt doesn’t have much patience for breakdowns.
The Vols ends blew containment, defensive tackles failed to control gaps, linebackers missed fits and defensive backs broke assignments last season.
Pruitt, whose successful defensive coordinator stints at Alabama, Georgia and Florida State led to him getting the Tennessee job, will spend the majority of his time trying to make sure this defense doesn’t have the same issues.
Kevin Sherrer, Pruitt’s former Alabama teammate under College Football Hall of Fame coach Gene Stallings, is the defensive coordinator in title. But Pruitt made it clear he’ll be in the defensive meeting room and coaching from that side of the football.
History shows how important it is that Pruitt and Sherrer are on the same page, teaching the same things, and getting the players to understand it.
“I just don’t like giving up plays, that’s probably the first thing for me,” Pruitt said after Tuesday’s practice.
Vols fans can understand where the new head coach is coming from.
There was a direct correlation to broken defensive assignments and pivotal losses at Kentucky and Florida last season.
In 2016, the Vols missed out on a New Year’s Six Bowl because of blown defensive assignments in defeats at Vanderbilt and South Carolina.
Former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop wasn’t able to implement the same complexities in his scheme at Tennessee as he did with five straight top 25-ranked defenses at Vanderbilt and Penn State.
Part of that had to do with injuries, but another part was players having trouble learning the system under a previous defensive staff lacking continuity.
Tennessee attempted to simplify things last season, but even then, without any All-SEC players on that side of the football and a struggling offense, the defense had issues.
Now, here comes Pruitt with a new defensive scheme, switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4. As Pruitt noted, “everybody is like a freshman because it’s the first time they’ve heard it.”
The question is, how quickly does it all sink in, and how will it affect who wins starting jobs?
“Certain guys that were recruited here might not necessarily fit what I want to do with them,” Pruitt said. “I think the big thing for our guys is the meetings. I think the meetings are a little different than what they’re accustomed to. I do think the guys are trying hard to grasp it. Obviously it’s a different defense, so there’s not a lot of familiarity when you cross over. It’s a lot of new concepts.”
Tennessee has seven starters returning on defense, but that doesn’t mean those seven players will maintain their jobs, particularly if they don’t learn the new scheme.
“You have to be a good communicator if you’re going to play good defense, because the first thing nowadays is you have to get lined up, and everybody has to be on the same page,” Pruitt said. “Usually it’s the second time through in the second week before they kind of start grasping everything.”
The start of the second week is upon us, and Pruitt said the offense made far too many plays on Tuesday for him to be in his comfort zone.
“We don’t even know who the best football players are yet,” Pruitt said. “We don’t know who’s going to get on the bus and go to the first game.”
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