The 2017 season was certainly memorable for Tennessee Volunteer football fans. Unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons, as the Vols would go winless in the SEC and endure their first eight-loss season in 121 years of football. The ridiculousness that ensued following the firing of head coach Butch Jones didn’t help matters either. But now that the dust has settled, VolNation is eager to put the dismal 2017 campaign in the rear-view mirror and begin a new chapter of Tennessee football with Jeremy Pruitt at the helm. The first-year head coach and his Volunteers will face some significant challenges in 2018, but there is room for optimism for the upcoming season.
1. A fresh start
Along with a familiar face in former head coach and new athletic director Phillip Fulmer, Jeremy Pruitt has already begun the quest to change the culture of Tennessee football. Gone are the days of cliché-filled rants, corny slogans and tireless excuses. Pruitt brings a tough, no-nonsense, approach to the job that already seems to be breathing new life into the program. Of course, only time will tell if the Pruitt era at Tennessee will be a success. However, if Pruitt and his staff’s relentless efforts so far on the recruiting trail are an early indication of things to come, the future looks bright on Rocky Top.
2. Improved defense under Pruitt and company
The SEC is a defensive-minded league, and a big reason for the Vols’ struggles over the last two seasons can be attributed to their lack of discipline and toughness on defense. That’s exactly why Pruitt was chosen to be the new head coach. Pruitt is widely acknowledged as one of college football’s great defensive minds, and his stellar track record backs that up. He’s also brought in an outstanding defensive staff, chock-full of SEC and championship experience, which is something the previous staff sorely lacked.
It would be foolish to expect the Tennessee defense to become dominant in Pruitt’s first year on the job. There will be some growing pains, especially with the anticipated transition from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 scheme. That said, If anyone can right the ship on defense in short order, it’s Pruitt. You should see a much-improved product on the field in 2018.
3. Tyson Helton = quarterback whisperer?
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about the Vols’ passing game after finishing the 2017 season ranked among the worst in college football. However, Tennessee may just have an ace up its sleeve for 2018 in the form of its new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, Tyson Helton. Helton’s resume’ is impeccable when it comes to transforming previously unheralded quarterbacks into legitimate stars.
As QB coach at UAB, Helton helped Joe Webb, a converted wide receiver, become one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Webb became the first player in NCAA history to throw for more than 2,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
Prior to Helton’s arrival as OC and QB coach at Western Kentucky, quarterback Brandon Doughty had thrown just 14 touchdown passes to go along with 14 interceptions. Under Helton’s tutelage, Doughty would go on to become one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Conference USA history. In fact, Doughty threw more touchdown passes in a two-year span (97) than any other quarterback in the history of college football.
And in his most recent stint as QB coach and passing game coordinator at USC, Helton played a key role in the development of Sam Darnold, who seems a fairly safe bet to become a top-five pick in the upcoming NFL draft. While there are no guarantees that Jarrett Guarantano (or whoever ends up taking the snaps for the Vols in 2018) will blossom into an elite SEC quarterback on Helton’s watch, you would be ill-advised to bet against it. The Volunteers still have serious question marks along the offensive line and at wide receiver. But don’t be surprised if the Tennessee passing attack, and the offense in general, is much better than advertised under Helton’s guidance in 2018.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.