Tennessee spring football preview: Hope in Year 2 under Pruitt

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Those who know Jeremy Pruitt best describe him as a bull in a china shop. It's the way he coaches, the way he recruits, the way he goes about his daily grind.

Given Tennessee's struggles over the past decade, the Volunteers probably needed a dose of Pruitt's in-your-face, old-school approach, and there were flashes of progress in 2018 in his debut season on Rocky Top. The Vols upset nationally ranked Auburn on the road and also knocked off a ranked Kentucky squad at home, but finished the season with a whimper with back-to-back lopsided losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt.

The end result was all too familiar to Tennessee fans -- a seventh losing season in the past 11.

But as Pruitt enters Year 2, the Vols return several key contributors from last season, and even more important, there's a genuine feeling inside the Tennessee football complex that some of the gains this offseason are indicative of what's to come on the field.

Pruitt hired away veteran offensive coordinator Jim Chaney from Georgia and went into the NFL ranks to get Derrick Ansley as the Vols' defensive coordinator after Pruitt called defensive plays in 2018. In addition, former Tennessee national championship quarterback Tee Martin, previously USC's offensive coordinator before being fired, is back at his alma mater as assistant head coach and receivers coach, and the Vols signed a pair of five-star offensive-tackle prospects in the 2019 class, including early enrollee Wanya Morris.

The schedule is a little more forgiving in 2019, with seven of the first nine games at home, meaning a postseason appearance is more than a reasonable expectation for the Vols in their second season under Pruitt.

2018 record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Spring practice starts: March 7

Spring game: April 13 at 6 p.m. ET; televised by the SEC Network

Biggest question of the spring: Line of scrimmage

The Vols lost Kyle Phillips, Alexis Johnson and Shy Tuttle, all of whom played a ton of snaps on the defensive line in 2018. This is a key spring for Emmit Gooden to assert himself in the middle of the defensive line and be a consistent performer after coming over from junior college a year ago. John Mincey and Matthew Butler will also get every chance to show what they can do up front defensively. There are question marks on the offensive line, too. Trey Smith's status after a recurrence of blood clots last year remains unclear, and starting tackle Drew Richmond elected to transfer. The Vols do get Brandon Kennedy back at center after he missed last season with an injury. Marcus Tatum has bulked up to 300 pounds, which should help his cause at tackle.

Strength heading into the spring: Returning skill players

It's always nice to return your starting quarterback and all of your top running backs and receivers, and that's what the Vols do in 2019. This will be Jarrett Guarantano's third season as the starting quarterback, and he will be surrounded by running backs Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan, who combined for 1,152 rushing yards last season, as well as the Vols' top three receivers from a year ago: Marquez Callaway, Josh Palmer and Jauan Jennings. All three averaged more than 14 yards per catch. And on defense, Tennessee returns the bulk of its secondary, including a pair of cornerbacks -- Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor -- who both started last season as true freshmen. Thompson intercepted three passes and earned Freshman All-America honors.

Spring storyline to watch: Coaching staff makeover

Chaney steps in for Tyson Helton as offensive coordinator and has a proven track record when it comes to developing quarterbacks. Everybody knows about his work with Drew Brees at Purdue, but Chaney was also instrumental in Jonathan Crompton's improvement his final season at Tennessee, turned Nathan Peterman into an NFL draft pick when Chaney was at Pittsburgh and got Jake Fromm ready to play as a true freshman at Georgia. Martin will take over as receivers coach with David Johnson moving to running backs. Chris Weinke will move from running backs to quarterbacks. And on defense, with Ansley taking over as coordinator, Kevin Sherrer will shift to special-teams coordinator. One of the biggest recruits of the offseason for Pruitt was keeping head strength coach Craig Fitzgerald after his alma mater, Maryland, made a hard run at him. With Fitzgerald returning, that means this will be the first time in five years that Tennessee has had the same strength coach in back-to-back years.

Instant-impact addition: Of the two five-star offensive-tackle prospects the Vols landed in the 2019 class, only Morris will be on campus this spring. Darnell Wright doesn't arrive until the summer. Morris has the size and tools to be a starter right away, and all of the reps he receives this spring should make him that much more equipped. The Vols were in desperate need of linebackers who could make plays in space, and early enrollee Quavaris Crouch would seem to fit that bill with his blend of speed and physicality. Crouch was a running back in high school, but the Vols recruited him as a linebacker.

2019 game to get excited about now: Sept. 21 at Florida

The truth is there hasn't been a lot to get excited about from the Tennessee perspective over the past decade or so when it comes to the Florida "rivalry." The Gators have won 13 of the past 14 games in the series, and the Vols last won at the Swamp in 2003, when Ron Zook was running the show in Gainesville. Despite Florida's stranglehold in this series, it's still the game that sets the tone for Tennessee in September and one that could propel the Vols to a big season with a victory, especially with an open date the following week and then Georgia coming to town Oct. 5.