Tennessee Vols: Jeremy Pruitt wants a sturdy interior around which to build 3-4 defense

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It's been a whirlwind past month for Pruitt, who was named Tennessee's coach on Dec. 7. He juggled that job and his role as Alabama's defensive coordinator through Monday, when the Crimson Tide won the national title. UT Sports

Tennessee‘s Shy Tuttle, middle, would be a logical choice to play nose tackle in Jeremy Pruitt‘s 3-4 defense.(Photo: AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS / NEWS SENTINEL)

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The hallmark of a defense – and a Nick Saban defense, for that matter – is a unit built around a sturdy interior.

“You’ve got to be good up the middle,” Pruitt said on Jan. 6, two days before Alabama beat Georgia to win the national championship. “You‘ve got to have big guys up front. You need to have good inside linebackers. You need to have good safety play, and you kind of work yourself from inside out. The first thing we‘re going to talk about is being able to stop the run. If you can stop the run, you‘ve got a chance to have success.”

Pruitt’s creed was on display in the in Pruitt’s final act as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. Alabama limited Georgia to an average of 3 yards per carry. Nose tackle Da’Ron Payne was a menace in the middle of Alabama’s defense, making six tackles en route to defensive player of the game honors.

Pruitt will look to install those defensive tenets as Tennessee’s coach. He also intends to convert the Vols to a 3-4 defensive alignment.

Previously, Tennessee ran a 4-3 defense with a heavy reliance on its nickel package.

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Blake Toppmeyer, John Adams and Mike Wilson on Pruitt's press conference on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.

Pruitt’s 3-4 will feature two inside linebackers, a strongside linebacker and a Jack linebacker, which is a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position that specializes in pass rushing.

Linebacker versatility is important to Pruitt.

“If we’re going to recruit a linebacker, the best guys that we can recruit could play all four positions,” Pruitt said. “For instance, you take a guy like Dont’a Hightower. At Alabama, he played (middle) linebacker, but on third down, he rushed the quarterback at outside ‘backer. His first year with the Patriots, he played for them as an outside linebacker. Now he’s been playing in the league for several years as an inside ‘backer.”

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Looking at the interior of Pruitt’s defense, the Vols are most established at the safety position, where Tennessee will return starters Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy along with Todd Kelly Jr., a former starter who missed most of the 2017 season with a knee injury.

At linebacker, Darrin Kirkland Jr. would seem like a prime candidate for an interior spot. He missed all of last season with a knee injury. Daniel Bituli and Quart’e Sapp also should be in the mix for starting linebacker spots. Either probably could play interior linebacker or strongside linebacker. At Jack, Darrell Taylor shapes up as a prime option.

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Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel Tennessee Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks at his first press conference at the Ray and Lucy Hand Studio in Knoxville, Tennessee on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.  Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel

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Taylor played defensive end in the Vols’ 4-3. He’s listed at 6-foot-4, 254 pounds – a nearly identical frame to Terrell Lewis, who was Alabama’s Jack linebacker.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether Pruitt can find a dependable anchor for the nose tackle position. Kahlil McKenzie would’ve been a top option had he not declared for the NFL draft.

Shy Tuttle could get the first crack at the job. At 6-2, 308 pounds, he has the same dimensions as Payne. Tuttle had 27 tackles in 2017 as the Vols’ top defensive tackle reserve. He’ll have to improve a lot as a senior if he’s going to start drawing comparisons to Payne.

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 Blake Toppmeyer, John Adams & Mike Wilson on Pruitt's press conference | 5:28

Blake Toppmeyer, John Adams and Mike Wilson on Pruitt‘s press conference on Wednesday, January 10, 2018.

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 The hardest part of juggling two jobs? The guilt, Jeremy Pruitt says | 0:54

Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, hired as Tennessee’s coach in December, discusses the challenge of juggling two jobs. Blake Toppmeyer/News Sentinel

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 Early signing day: Breaking down Tennessee's current class | 5:43

Tennessee reporters Blake Toppmeyer and Mike Wilson discuss the Vols‘ recruiting class heading into the early signing period Blake Toppmeyer and Mike Wilson/News Sentinel

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 Alontae Taylor signs with Tennessee football | 0:54

Coffee County senior Alontae Taylor signed with Tennessee on the last day of the early signing period. Tom Kreager

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 VIDEO: Ollie Lane: I can't wait to be a part of Tennessee football | 0:50

Gibbs‘ Ollie Lane signed with the Vols on Early Signing Day Dec. 20, 2017 Diana Nearhos/News Sentinel

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 Tanner Antonutti is ready to join the Vols | 0:29

Ensworth‘s Tanner Antonutti talks about why he signed with Tennessee. Tom Kreager / USA Today Network – Tennessee

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 Brant Lawless signs with Tennessee | 0:37

See why Nashville Christian‘s Brant Lawless is signing with Tennessee. Tom Kreager

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 Jerome Carvin to Tennessee | 1:12

Jerome Carvin to Tennessee By John Varlas/The Commercial Appeal

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 Keaton Jones visits UT | 1:57

Keaton Jones, whose bullying video has gone viral, visited with UT Athletics Director Phil Fulmer and members of the Vols football team on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. Submitted/ University of Tennessee.

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 Jeremy Pruitt introduced at Vols basketball game | 1:14

Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt was introduced during a timeout at the Vols basketball game on Saturday Mike Wilson/News Sentinel

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 Watch a time lapse of The Rock being painted to welcome UT Vols new coach Jeremy Pruitt | 2:17

Watch a time lapse of University of Tennessee sophomore Kate Luffman painting The Rock to welcome UT Vols new coach Jeremy Pruitt. Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 Who Pruitt sees as Vols' opponents | 0:41

University of Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks about who he sees as the Vols‘ opponents during his introduction ceremony in the Neyland Stadium Peyton Manning Locker Room Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017.

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 A timeline of Tennessee's coaching search | 1:51

The Tennessee coaching search has gone through a tumultuous week. Angela Gosnell/News Sentinel

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 Phil Fulmer named Vols athletics director | 0:56

Tennessee has named former head football coach Phil Fulmer as the athletics director. Wochit

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 John Currie out as Tennessee athletic director | 0:43

John Currie is out as the Tennessee athletic director after eight months on the job and one chaotic week of a football coaching search, according to media reports. Angela Gosnell/News Sentinel

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CLOSEUT VOLS FOOTBALL OFFSEASON 2017-18 UT Vols: 5 things to know about Jeremy Pruitt | 0:57

Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has been hired as the next coach at Tennessee. Wochit

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  • Blake Toppmeyer, John Adams & Mike Wilson on Pruitt's press conference
  • The hardest part of juggling two jobs? The guilt, Jeremy Pruitt says
  • Early signing day: Breaking down Tennessee's current class
  • Alontae Taylor signs with Tennessee football
  • VIDEO: Ollie Lane: I can't wait to be a part of Tennessee football
  • Tanner Antonutti is ready to join the Vols
  • Brant Lawless signs with Tennessee
  • Jerome Carvin to Tennessee
  • Keaton Jones visits UT
  • Jeremy Pruitt introduced at Vols basketball game
  • Watch a time lapse of The Rock being painted to welcome UT Vols new coach Jeremy Pruitt
  • Who Pruitt sees as Vols' opponents
  • A timeline of Tennessee's coaching search
  • Phil Fulmer named Vols athletics director
  • John Currie out as Tennessee athletic director
  • UT Vols: 5 things to know about Jeremy Pruitt

 

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