Tennessee football: Jeremy Pruitt’s rebuild of Vols in the trenches is complete

Rebuilding the Volunteers’ offensive and defensive line was a big project for Jeremy Pruitt as Tennessee football’s head coach. His work is complete.

When Jeremy Pruitt took over in 2018, Tennessee football had a problem. Injuries, attrition and the wrong system put the Vols’ offensive line lightyears behind where they needed to be. The defensive line, meanwhile, was loaded with only seniors.

That meant that Pruitt would have a ton of work to do to rebuild the depth on both sides of the trenches, and Phillip Fulmer hired him specifically to be able to dominate the line of scrimmage. Well, in his first year, while Kyle Phillips, Alexis Johnson and Shy Tuttle thrived on defense, the offensive line was historically bad.

In his second year, Tennessee football started two freshmen at tackle, had a center return from injury and a guard return from blood clots in his lungs. On defense, they had to replace everybody, and their only returning contributor, Emmit Gooden, suffered a season-ending injury.

The result was a disastrous start. But as time went on, both units began to gel. Meanwhile, Pruitt’s recruiting began to rebuild the depth on both sides. Now, because of developments that happened this week, Pruitt has completely rebuilt the Vols up front.

On Wednesday, Cade Mays, a five-star lineman committed to UT back in 2017 before the Butch Jones collapse resulted in him decommitting and instead joining the Georgia Bulldogs, has now decided to transfer back to UT. A legacy player, Mays’ father played for them in 1994, and his brother Cooper, a four-star center, just committed to them.

Mays could end up receiving an eligibility waiver because his father is locked in a lawsuit with the University of Georgia and his offensive line coach, Sam Pittman, just took a job with the Arkansas Razorbacks. A freshman All-American in 2018, Mays started 11 games this past year and thrives at guard, so he could immediately shine.

Following the Mays news, Trey Smith surprised the world on Thursday with the announcement that he would stay for his senior season. A two-time All-SEC guard, Smith will be back up front with Brandon Kennedy, UT’s starting center who just received a sixth-year of eligibility.

So up front in 2020, Tennessee football will have its two returning freshman tackles from 2019, Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright, both of whom earned freshman All-SEC. They will have Smith and Kennedy in the middle and could have Mays.

In addition to those guys, you have Riley Locklear, Jerome Carvin, K’Rojhn Calbert, and Jahmir Johnson as returning veterans. That means the Vols have at least eight guys who are proven contributors who will be in the offensive line rotation next year, and if Mays gets his year of eligibility, they will have nine.

Younger guys in Chris Akporoghene, Jackson Lampley and Cooper Mays are four-stars. So UT’s offensive line could have 12 guys who are either veterans or four-stars. They are guaranteed to have eight of those guys in 2021, and seven of them had four-star rankings or higher. Add in inevitable new recruits in 2021, and Pruitt has the depth he needs now for the long-term up front.

We already knew Pruitt’s work was close to being done. Offensive linemen Marcus Tatum and Ryan Johnson have transferred this offseason because their playing time began to be a bit more limited. But this week’s news confirms it.

What about defense? Well, Pruitt found his rotation in Aubrey Solomon, Kurrott Garland, Greg Emerson, Savion Williams and Darel Middleton in the middle along with Matthew Butler, and LaTrell Bumphus and Ja’Quain Blakely on the end. All of those guys are back this year plus Gooden, who returns from injury, and five of them had four-star or higher rankings.

That means Pruitt can go six-deep with his two tackles and three-deep with his ends on just returning talent. Then he’s added two four-stars to this class, Dominic Bailey and Omari Thomas, at defensive tackle, and he’s got two strong-side defensive ends in four-star Tyler Baron and three-star Reginald Perry. By the way, four-star Jay Hardy could still sign with UT as well.

But even without Hardy, Tennessee football also has Kingston Harris and Elijah Simmons, two former three-stars, who can play in the middle along with John Mincey on the end. So heading into 2021, with all the seniors up front this year, they will still be able to go six-deep at defensive tackle and three-deep at their one end spot regardless of what happens.

Of that talent, at least one of the ends will have been a four-star recruit, and three of the tackles will have been one. Again, that’s assuming there are no redshirts or no new recruits, and both things will obviously not be true.

Taking all this into account, it’s pretty clear where Tennessee football stands up front now. Pruitt has fully restocked the trenches, and heading into his third year, the Vols are much healthier and much more familiar with his system. This is where things start if you want to win the SEC. By dominating the line of scrimmage, the Vols stand to be very dangerous next year.