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Driving blind? Jeremy Pruitt challenges a young DL to learn their ABCs

By Jeremy Pruitt’s own admission, he was rambling, but no one dared stop Tennessee’s head coach, especially when he jokingly challenged reporters to all drive home with their eyes closed just to hammer home a point.

Pruitt was on a roll Tuesday.

Following Sunday’s good-but-not-great first scrimmage of fall camp, the second-year coach was asked a rather innocuous question about the recent performance of the Vols’ offensive and defensive lines.

Both units have promise but plenty of question marks as the 2019 season quickly approaches, but instead of settling on a trite response, Pruitt delivered an entertaining two-minute soliloquy on the differences of evaluating each unit, slipping in multiple metaphors.

“Both sides of the ball are just very inconsistent,” Pruitt began.

“From a defensive standpoint, just lining up, lining up the proper way… based off the backfield formation, whether it’s back is in the three spot, it’s gun near, it’s gun far, or the ‘Y’ is off or the ‘Y’ is on. A lot of those things change how you should line up defensively. If I’m a 3-technique, maybe I need to be a little bit tighter, maybe I need to be a little bit looser. Maybe I’m getting a run key here, or maybe it’s a pass key. All that changes your stance, your alignment, all these things…

“To me, I look at it like this: OK, we all get in the car every day. When y’all leave here, y’all are gonna get in the car, OK, and you’re gonna drive. Whether you’re going out Alcoa Highway or Kingston Pike, when you get out there, aight, just shut your eyes while you’re driving down the road and see how well you do, aight? Because if you don’t know the things that I’m talking about, and you’re trying to play defensive line, you’re basically playing with your eyes shut, OK? That’s not real easy to do.

“So we’ve got to do a good job of coaching these guys up, and they’ve got to understand it and learn it. We can sit in the room, and we can talk about it, right? And we can show it to ‘em, and they can get it. They write it down, say, ‘Uh-huh,’ and they can give you the answers and all that. But when you go out there and the heat index is 105, do they really get it? The 65th minute of practice, do they really get it? When the offense is daggum sticking it down their throat, do they really get it? I don’t know. That’s what we’re trying to do, is figure out who can and who can’t, right?

Right now, we’ve got a ways to go there.”

Pruitt wasn’t finished, either.

As Tennessee tries to assess what it has on the defensive line without senior Emmit Gooden, who tore his ACL last week, the goal this week for a young unit is to take a step forward before the team’s second scrimmage Saturday. According to Pruitt, they can only go up right now.

They’re still just learning their ABCs. He’s hoping they can get to multiplication by week’s end.

“Right now we’re still … it’s like, with most of our players on the defensive line, we’re still in elementary school, OK? Aight?,” Pruitt said.

“Hopefully this next week we can get to junior high, and then next week we can get like we’re in high school, and eventually we’ll be on the college level before the season’s over with. Does that make sense? Just in knowing those things.”

Thus far in camp, guys like Aubrey Solomon, Greg Emerson, Elijah Simmons and others have flashed their natural ability, but too often per Pruitt, the young lineman resort to simply utilizing their physical gifts instead of playing within the system or knowing their right assignments.

Are they reading the right keys? Attacking the correct gap?

Unlike the offensive line, where if one guy screws up, everyone looks bad, your eyes can be deceived defensively. Sometimes the result of a play — a sack or tackle for loss — can be a lie, and Pruitt is looking to eliminate such distortions up front.

“On the defensive line, three of them can mess it up, and one of ‘em, aight, can really not do what he’s supposed to do, but just because he’s really good, he goes and makes a play. Then everybody thinks the defense is pretty good, right?,” Pruitt said, rhetorically.

“It’s really good if I run under the tackle and I sack the quarterback, but it’s not good if I run under the tackle and the quarterback runs for a 30-yard gain or a five-yard gain on 3rd-and-4 and you have the pattern matched. We have some guys that have ability that have to learn to play within the defense and they’ll do that. That comes with experience. That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re practicing.

"Unfortunately for us is we need them to play right now. It’s not like we have a room full of guys where they get to wait their turn. The guys that play for us need to play immediately and that’s why they’re here.”