Looking back on Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure with Tennessee football, if there was ever a time to fire him, it might have been at the end of the 2019 season. Obviously, as he finished that year on a six-game winning streak and secured a top 10 recruiting class, that wasn’t going to happen.
However, after the NFL teams officially named their 53-man rosters and made their final cuts for the 2021 season Tuesday, it’s clear the Vols massively underachieved that year. Pruitt should have been fired just for that.
There are seven players from that team that are starter-caliber in the NFL. Only four of them were drafted, though. Highest among them was Darrell Taylor, who went in the second round to the Seattle Seahawks back in 2020.
Joining Taylor now is Tennessee football’s starting safety from 2019, Nigel Warrior. He went undrafted in 2020 and couldn’t land a roster spot, but with an actual preseason this past year, he was finally able to prove himself and will be in Seattle as well.
Speaking of needing a preseason, Jauan Jennings was taken by the San Francisco 49ers in the seventh round of that same draft. He is clearly the type of receiver who needs in-game action to prove what he can do, and with this preseason, he has now made the 53-man roster.
Jennings isn’t the only receiver on an NFL roster from that team. Marquez Callaway, UT’s No. 2 receiver behind Jennings in 2019 and their punt returner, landed a spot with the New Orleans Saints. He was with them last year as an undrafted free agent and has become a highlight reel this preseason, to the point that he could become New Orleans’ No. 1 receiver.
Then there’s Josh Palmer, who was selected by the Los Angeles Chargers in the third round of this draft. He made the 53-man roster as well and was the No. 3 receiver in 2019. Yes, the Vols’ top three receivers from 2019 are all on NFL rosters.
That alone speaks to the talent of Tennessee football’s 2019 team. However, then there’s Trey Smith, who fell to the sixth round of this year’s NFL Draft but has already been a standout blocker with the Kansas City Chiefs, immediately winning a starting job.
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On defense, Bryce Thompson is another player who would have landed a deal had he not gotten hurt. He had an interception in his first preseason game and will be on the team’s injured reserves this year while he recovers. If not for injuries, Daniel Bituli would have likely been on an NFL roster as well.
We’re not even counting the players still playing college ball who will likely be NFL starters in the future from that team, including Eric Gray, Ty Chandler, Darnell Wright, Henry To’o To’o, Alontae Taylor, Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough. Okay, so the team was young, and seven NFL players is hardly enough to be elite in the SEC.
However, that leads to the second part of why 2019 underachieved. Tennessee football had a super-easy schedule. Remember, the Vols played all four non-conference games at home, and none of their foes were Power Five foes. They still, somehow, managed to start 0-2 and lose to the Georgia State Panthers and BYU Cougars.
Pruitt’s selling point was the six-game winning streak to finish the season. However, involved in that were one-possession wins that required comebacks and late defensive stands against the 6-6 Missouri Tigers, 8-5 Kentucky Wildcats who didn’t even have a true quarterback and 8-5 Indiana Hoosiers. Is pulling out squeakers over those teams really that impressive?
Look, there were a lot of reasons to be happy about the way Tennessee football finished its 2019 campaign. It made Pruitt look like he was turning a corner. However, he was cashing in on an easy schedule with lots of NFL talent, including maybe the best receiving corps. in the SEC. Looking at that, you have to say he underachieved in the end.