Pruitt instilling ‘player-led’ team in first year at Tennessee

Jeremy Pruitt and Eli Wolf remember the story a bit differently.

Pruitt thought Wolf was a manager or trainer on first glance. Wolf told Pruitt he was a player — a tight end, in fact.

“I said, ‘Really?’ Pruitt recalls asking. ‘You can block one of these SEC guys or somebody?’ ”

Wolf insists he responded affirmatively. Pruitt’s recollection has a bit more bite. 

“He said, ‘I don't know about that, Coach,’” Pruitt said Tuesday afternoon, “‘but I can run a 4.5.’”

However the particulars went down that day before a workout, Wolf — who has four receptions in his two seasons in Knoxville — left the interaction eager to prove himself. Pruitt left truly open to having his mind changed.

Since then, Wolf has added 20 pounds and asserted himself as a team leader, seemingly in line for an increasing role in the year ahead. He had five catches in the spring game alone.

That’s just one example of how the first-year Tennessee head coach is altering the culture at Tennessee, one that is player-centric and predicated on equality in opportunity.

“He focuses on a player-led team,” Wolf said, “which basically means the players hold each other accountable, not so much the coaches having us be in charge of everything. If you see a teammate messing up, a player calls him out because it kind of means a little bit more coming from one of your brothers or teammates than the coaches saying it over and over.”

This mindset also has manifested itself early in practice. Pruitt and the coaching staff have given equal reps to nearly every player, a rarity in today’s college football.

The message: Everyone has the opportunity to earn playing time, no matter stature, past success recruiting ranking or any other external factor.

“I believe that that’s going to help us instill more depth in our defense and our offense,” Tennessee defensive end Kyle Phillips said, “just having the mindset that any guy is prepared to play, any guy is prepared to go out there and be successful.”

As the question-and-answer session progressed, reporters tried to pry out information about individual players. Neither player was having it, often deflecting those questions onto broader praise for his position group.

Jeremy Pruitt is changing things at Tennessee, and he’s doing so by letting his players take charge.

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