Not much. That was the lesson learned inside Neyland Stadium on Saturday with the annual Orange and White Game. After the worst season in school history and a disastrous off-season coaching search, Tennessee fans were ready to see a glimpse of the future. The Tennessee Vols Spring Game, the conclusion of the 2018 spring practice session, gave fans a slight glimpse into the 2018 season.
2018 Tennessee Vols Spring Game Recap
It was different, to be sure. New Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt changed almost everything about the Vols program after taking the helm four months ago. But change doesn’t always ensure success. Here’s what we did learn in the Tennessee Vols Spring Game.
What We Learned About The Players
There were up to 30 players who are likely to make a significant contribution to Tennessee’s 2018 season that weren’t on the field on Saturday. That includes graduate transfers Keller Chryst and Madre London. It includes key summer-enrollee freshman J.J. Peterson and Brant Lawless. Junior College transfers Dominick Wood-Anderson and Emmit Gooden weren’t there. And, of course, it includes injured Vols such as Trey Smith and Darren Kirkland, Jr. among others. It’s hard to learn much about a football team when 35% of the two-deep roster isn’t there.
Offense: Back to the Basics
But what about the players that did play? The offense definitely looked better than the defense.
Jarrett Guarantano was named the game’s MVP. Guarantano, who started six games last season, looked more comfortable in the pocket and had more zip on his vertical passes. He still struggled with the touch on his passes, however, and his decision-making was still slow on several occasions. These are the two biggest differences between traditional “Pro-style Quarterbacks” and “Dual-Threat Quarterbacks.” If new Offensive Coordinator Tyson Helton does run a more traditional attack, Guarantano will have to improve in both of those areas.
The most noticeable that almost no one is talking about was the vast improvement in discipline on the offensive line. The were no noticeable pre-snap miscues, no errant snaps, and a noticeable lack of penalties on the offensive line. This is in stark contrast to a turbulent 2017 season for that particular Tennessee unit. Their play can, and must, be better. But they’ve corrected the easy things quickly.
The receivers and running backs gave us little analyze. Marquez Callaway, Latrell Williams, Josh Palmer, and Austin Pope made plays in the red zone and downfield, but the passing just wasn’t strong enough to get a good read on the receiving corps. The running backs were solid, but no one stood out with stellar play. Tim Jordan had the best day of that group.
Austin Pope was quietly the best player of the day, regardless of Guarantano’s aforementioned award. Pope had a nice reception leading to a first and goal situation. More importantly, he manned the fullback position in goal line formation and had a nice block on Quarte Sapp to spring a touchdown run. It’s that toughness and versatility that Tennessee will desperately need in the upcoming season.
Defense: From “Not Much” to “Alot”
Giving up 41 points in essentially three quarters of play isn’t a good way to finish the spring. It looked like more of the same from the Tennessee defense, as the first team offense moved at will, especially on the ground, against a unit that yielded 251 rushing yards per game last season.
Much like the offensive line, the defensive backs were the bright spot on defense after a close look at the film. After struggling for several years with basic technique, the defensive backs played with much better technique on Saturday.
.@theo_jackson05 headed the other way 🚫
Sets up the Orange offense inside the 10 pic.twitter.com/MJc8u2IEPm
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) April 21, 2018
No position group is more noticeably different this spring that the defensive backs.
Nigel Warrior led the team in tackles–continuing his strong spring performance. But having a defensive back leading the team in tackles is not a good thing. The defensive line must be more aggressive, particularly Kyle Phillips and Jonathan Kongbo. The linebacking unit was led on Saturday by Quarte Sapp. Even without two likely starters in the game, the linebackers were average, at best.
What We Learned About Coaches and Scheme
The offensive scheme did feature multiple sets, including utilizing a fullback (tight end Pope), two tight end sets, and keeping shotgun and pistol formations. But all of the formations and the plays from those formations were basic plays, save for the double reverse call. The blocking schemes were basic and the play selection was simple practice sheet run-throughs.
But that’s to be expected in a spring game. The improved play from the offensive line and defensive backs is encouraging, as is the improvement to Guarantano’s game. The sophomore still has a long way to go, however.
What did Jeremy Pruitt think about Saturday? You guessed it: Not much.
Pruitt wasn’t very happy in his postgame press conference, specifically saying that some players “flat-out quit.” His comments were referencing rushing yards specifically, so one could assume he was talking about the first team defensive front seven, or the second team offensive line. Or both.
Pruitt graded the team’s performance as a “D” for the day. That is probably an honest and objective grade. One thing is for sure–players on Pruitt’s team will be held accountable and held to the highest of standards on the field.
Pruitt also had some interesting comments about the ‘lack of attendance’ from fans. The 65,098 announced attendance, much like some of the play, wasn’t up to the his expectations from the program.
In the end, attendance numbers, fan attitudes, and everything else around the program depends on the wins and the losses. And all we really learned from Saturday is that the Vols program is–again–starting over from scratch. This marks the fourth time in a decade Tennessee is starting a complete program rebuild.
So what does that leave for expectations for the upcoming season?