As the days come and go, Tennessee football gets crazier and crazier. Just hours before their final game was played, it was announced that Star RB Eric Gray and backup QB Brian Maurer would not be available to play against A&M. This was taken lightly, as Maurer had injured his ankle in the previous game, and Tennessee RB Coach Jay Graham was also not attending due to COVID-19 protocols, so it was assumed Gray was another close contact.
Shortly after though, it was announced that Tennessee Football was under investigation for alleged recruiting violations. That was when it all came together. Gray and Maurer were both part of the 2019 recruiting class, and it made sense that if it was that 2019 recruiting class that was in trouble, they would have to sit out. Henry To'o To'o was mentioned in the report as well. To'o To'o was also part of the 2019 class.
On January 6th, a new report popped up with a claim that longtime Tennessee target and 5 star Georgia signee Amarius Mims was also part of the investigation. It also said that the University had hired Kansas-based expert lawyers Mike Glazier and Kyle Skillman to assist with the investigation. It is worth noting that Glazier was part of the Bruce Pearl Tennessee Basketball investigation that ended with Pearl getting fired. It was also rumored that defensive coordinator Derek Ansley wants out of the program.
On January 7th, Tennessee announced they were not extending contracts, and pausing hiring amid the investigation. In addition, an ESPN analyst said he doesn't think Pruitt will still be coaching Tennessee football after the investigation.
What does this mean? For one, there has been numerous Tennessee players transferring out of the program. It started with WR Brandon Johnson transferring the week before the last game. Then QBs Jarrett Guarantano, JT Shrout (to Colorado) , LB Deandre Johnson (to Miami), RB Ty Chandler, TE Jordan Allen, and DB Baylen Buchanan entered the portal.
Secondly, could this be the unfortunate end to the Jeremy Pruitt era at Tennessee? If it is, it's truly a shame. In Pruitt's 3 years on Rocky Top, he has guided us to wins over Auburn and #11 Kentucky in 2018, a 6-game win streak in 2019 capped off with a win over Indiana in the Gator Bowl, plus a halftime lead against #3 Georgia in 2020 that gave Vol fans hope that Tennessee was back, although those hopes were quickly dashed in the 3rd quarter.
Now who would be the candidates to replace Pruitt? Liberty coach and Cure Bowl champ Hugh Freeze seems to be the leader among fans, but Gus Malzahn is also in the market. Both of these coaches proved they can beat Nick Saban in the past, which seems like Tennessee's goal. Jamey Chadwell, who led Coastal Carolina to a 11-1 record, Luke Fickell, who led Cincinnati to a 9-1 record, and Billy Napier who led UL Lafayette to a 10-1 record have all been mentioned as well.
Now the Pruitt fan would argue he never had enough talent to succeed. I partially agree with that. Guarantano's ineptness can be blamed on 2018, where Pruitt played a RS Freshman JG who wasn't ready over a talented grad-transfer Keller Chryst. But to be fair, Pruitt had 3 years to develop a useable QB, or fix JG. JT Shrout, who was a part of Pruitt's first class, had 3 years and was still making rookie mistakes this season. Brian Maurer, who committed to Tennessee in the 2019 class, had a above average freshman season, courtesy to JG's struggles, but looked totally lost in his limited playing time. In fact, I feel that Maurer lost his job as a QB too, as he played a Taysom Hill-style of football when he did get playing time. Jeremy Pruitt does show life with QB recruiting, as he landed Bailey, a 4 star in 2020, Kaidon Salter, a 4 star in 2021, and Virginia Tech transfer QB Hendon Hooker, who is a proven starter. It's also noteworthy that only two Tennessee quarterbacks have winning records in the Pruitt era, with Shrout being 1-0 in his only start vs UAB, and Jauan Jennings, a now 49ers WR, who started the game off with a wildcat play vs South Carolina in 2019, is 1-0.
Now the talent issue goes much deeper than the QB position. Pruitt couldn't really capitalize on a very talented WR unit of 2019, due to poor QB development. He wasted a talented Tyler Byrd in 2019 after the senior was excluded from the regular rotation although being talented enough to start. He also didn't take a chance by redshirting Byrd. At least he was able to redshirt Brandon Johnson in 2019. He then proceeded to underuse Brandon Johnson, who led the team in receiving in 2017, leading to Johnson transferring out. 4-star receiver Ramel Keyton who was part of the 2019 cycle struggled in 2020, before academic struggles led to an opt-out. 3-star Vegas WR Cedric Tillman had the talent, as shown in an amazing TD grab vs A&M, and Georgia transfer WR Deangelo Gibbs was Tennessee's only COVID opt-out of 2020. Freshmen Malachi Wideman, Jimmy Calloway, and Jimmy Holiday were ineffective in their freshman seasons, with Wideman having an elite back shoulder grab vs Kentucky but back to back drive killing penalties a couple of games later. Holiday was recruited as an athlete, played QB in high school, but ended up at WR at Tennessee. He was barely used in designed runs, either jet sweeps or wildcat plays, and dropped an easy fake punt pass from punter Paxton Brooks against Florida. Pruitt did strike gold with USC transfer Velus Jones, but that was partially because of WR Coach Tee Martin's relationship with Jones.
On the other side of the ball, Pruitt and DC Ansley's proven track record of having an elite secondary was a joke. This is Pruitt, who won 4 national titles as DC, and he had one of the worst defenses in the SEC in 2020. The talent was definitely there, but the coaching just wasn't. Pruitt may just be starting to regret ever taking a job at UT, as this might even ruin his stock as a DC. The bad coaching is evident on the O Line, as 2020's line had 24 out of the 25 possible stars, and yet struggled to block at times. Earlier in the season, we all had concerns about the tight end position, as they were so bad at pass catching (which shouldn't happen because there is a former WR in that group) and even worse at blocking. It got so bad that OC Chaney often put O Lineman with TE numbered jerseys into situation where they needed pass protection. That just turned out to be a QB issue, as once Bailey took over, the only 2 TEs who played all season each caught a TD in the final 2 games.
Finally, special teams. Pruitt started off his tenure with punter Joe Doyle, who struggled to continue Tennessee's reign as Punter U. During the 2019 season, Pruitt had enough with Doyle, benching him and putting in kickoff specialist Paxton Brooks at punter. Brooks played pretty well, averaging over 40 yards a punt. Nothing can match the Colquitt days or Trevor Daniel averaging 60 yards a punt though. Doyle entered the transfer portal but ended up remaining at Tennessee as the holder, edging out UConn transfer Brett Graham. Kicking was never a concern with Aaron Medley and Brent Cimaglia, up until 2020 at least. Cimaglia, who was hit with a leg injury and COVID quarantine in the 2020 preseason, never even got to practice with the rest of the kicking personnel before his first FG attempt vs South Carolina. The 2019 Lou Groza award semifinalist and 2020 Preseason Lou Groza award watch list member proceeded to hit 5 of 9 FGs, as Chaney finally decided to go for 4th and shorts in 2020, before opting out just before the Vanderbilt game. Walk-on Toby Wilson hit 6 XPs in his debut against Vandy, and went 1 for 2 vs A&M, putting himself 7 for 8 XPs on the season and no attempted FGs. Pruitt did pull an elite kicker who could casually nail 50-60 yarders in varsity games into the 2021 recruiting class.
So will Pruitt dig a way out of this hole? Or does the investigation get it's way to end the Pruitt era and avoid paying him a buyout? Only time will tell.