Everywhere you look across the college football landscape, there seem to be new coaches at tradition programs. Chris Low is touring the country to find out what's changed and how these new head men are working to meet expectations in their first year. The final station on his five-stop tour is Jeremy Pruitt and the Tennessee Volunteers.
Stop 5: Tennessee
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- If he's said it once, he's said it hundreds of times since being hired as Tennessee's head football coach.
Jeremy Pruitt believes in the "power of the T" and wants to make that a staple again in his no-frills approach to resurrecting a Tennessee program that's suffered through losing seasons five of the last eight years.
"The first thing to me, when I think about the power of the T, is toughness," Pruitt said. "Growing up and watching Tennessee play, how they played, the respect that the other teams in the league had for Tennessee ... that's what it means to me. Now, you might ask others [in the program], and it might mean trust. So there are a lot of things that it means. But that's what stands out to me, just the toughness, toughness in the program and togetherness."
Pruitt's practices have reflected that toughness, the type of practices that Pruitt's boss, Hall of Fame coach and current Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer, has referred to as a football classroom. Pruitt is as hands-on as it gets and never stops pushing and never stops challenging his players.
If it sounds a lot like his last boss, Alabama coach Nick Saban, it should. They mirror each other greatly when it comes to their passion for the game.
"Coach Pruitt loves football, and you can clearly see it once you talk to him or have been to a practice," Tennessee junior receiver Marquez Callaway said. "The amount of energy he brings and the staff brings is unbelievable. It's something that we really needed."
Pruitt has been heartened by the way this team has competed and "learned how to practice" this preseason as opposed to what he saw in the spring. Helping matters has been adding injured players such as offensive linemen Trey Smith and Chance Hall, linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Daniel Bituli and receiver Jauan Jennings, all of whom were either out or limited in the spring, along with promising freshmen Trevon Flowers at safety and Bryce Thompson at cornerback. That's not to mention several transfers the Vols expect to be impact players right away. Among them are tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson, center Brandon Kennedy, offensive lineman Jahmir Johnson and running back Madre London.
"We've got 30 players that are here now that weren't here in the spring," Pruitt said. "We have competition now, so when you come out and watch us, it looks like a football team. I see lots of improvement every day."
Senior defensive lineman Kyle Phillips can already sense an edge about this team that wasn't there a year ago.
"We're going to be a team that when we leave the field, the other team doesn't want to play us anymore because they know how hard we play on each and every down," Phillips said. "That's something we're going to bring to the table."
Some in and around the college football world have suggested that it will be hard for Fulmer not to naturally be looking over Pruitt's shoulder all the time, although Pruitt doesn't necessarily see it that way. "He was the head coach here for a long time, played here, was an assistant coach here. He knows when things were going well what was being done, and he knows when there were mistakes or hiccups along the way. Maybe he can keep me from making the same mistakes. He knows the blueprint, so he's been great for me," Pruitt said.
Several of the Tennessee players echoed that if you don't want to be coached hard that Pruitt might not be the coach for you. "He's always in your grill, but it's out of love," Phillips said. "If he's not in your grill yelling at you, there might be something wrong. You should be glad he's in your grill yelling at you because that means he cares."
Pruitt isn't sure if he'll name a starting quarterback before the opener against West Virginia, at least publicly, but the signs clearly point to redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano, who has been receiving the first-team reps. The Vols brought in Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst, but Guarantano has been the more effective quarterback this preseason.
Of the new faces on Tennessee's roster, Wood-Anderson has been as impressive as anybody and should be a key part of the offense at tight end. He's pushing 270 pounds and can really run for a guy that size.
It's going to be especially important for the Vols to stay healthy on the offensive line, and much of that hinges on Smith, who's coming back from blood clots in his lungs and has been working at left tackle. Smith said he was a little rusty since being cleared last week for contact, but Pruitt likes the competition along the offensive line and is interested in seeing how all of the moving parts shake out. "I think as the season goes, the more they play together, it has a chance to be a strength for our football team," Pruitt said.
Tennessee's coaching search and the way it played out during the offseason was as hard on the players as anybody, particularly the Greg Schiano fiasco and revolving door of names right after that. "I'm not going to lie. It was hard," junior linebacker Quart'e Sapp said. "We sat down as a team and agreed to stay away from social media. When Coach Fulmer came in as AD, he communicated with us, and that helped."
Stop 4: Texas A&M
Can Jimbo turn Texas A&M into contenders?
After signing a massive contract to coach at Texas A&M, Jimbo Fisher looks to lead Aggies to prominence this season.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The time-honored traditions at Texas A&M flow endlessly, from the 12th Man, to the Yell Leaders, to the Midnight Yell to singing the Aggie War Hymn.
First-year coach Jimbo Fisher is quickly getting up to speed on all of them, but the tradition he wants to bring first and foremost to Aggieland is winning championships. Texas A&M last won a national championship in 1939 and hasn't won a conference championship of any kind since 1998, when the Aggies won the Big 12 title.
Fisher, one of four active FBS coaches to have won a national championship, joked "they don't give those things away."
In the same breath, he said he would have never made the move here from Florida State if he didn't believe everything was in place at Texas A&M to win at the highest level. He said that starts with a university administration that's completely in concert with what it takes to win championships.
"From the chancellor, to the president, to the athletic director, to the head coach, it's one here," said Fisher, who signed a guaranteed 10-year, $75 million contract. "I'm in communication with all three and very rarely does that happen consistently. They are very involved and always coming to me and saying, 'What do you need? What else do we need to do?' Their visions, goals and values are in line with mine. We all believe in the same thing."
It hasn't taken the Texas A&M players very long to figure out what Fisher believes in on the practice field.
"Every practice is a championship," senior safety Donovan Wilson said. "It's like we're playing for a championship every practice. The intensity is up. He's fired up, and I just love the energy he's brought to this program. You gotta have a great leader, and we feed off of his energy."
While much has been made of the massive amount of money Texas A&M paid to get Fisher, he said his longtime relationship with Texas A&M athletic director Scott Woodward going back to their days together at LSU was a huge factor in his decision to make the move. After all, this was hardly the first time that another school had come after Fisher. Equally important to Fisher was the way the Aggies have continued to invest and re-invest in the program. Case in point: Notre Dame was upping the ante to keep Mike Elko as defensive coordinator, and the Texas A&M administration gave Fisher the green light to pay whatever it took to land Elko, who signed a deal that will pay him $1.8 million per year.
It's the same way with facilities. Even though the weight room is relatively new, it's going to be renovated later this year, and plans are also in the works to extend the indoor practice facility to where it connects directly to the weight room.
"I remember all of the gruff we got at LSU when we paid Nick Saban $1.2 million, and it was, 'You're going to pay what and to whom?'" recounted Woodward, who also lured Chris Petersen to Washington. "But it's not just about what we're paying Jimbo. It's arming him with the people and facilities around him to compete."
Fisher was at Florida State for eight seasons, won the national title in 2013 and averaged more than 10 wins per season, but he understands some of the hard feelings in Tallahassee over the way it all ended there a year ago.
"There's never an easy way to leave, especially when there are so many people there that you care about and did so much for me," Fisher said. But anybody suggesting that he's running away from the pressures at FSU, particularly given Clemson's rise under Dabo Swinney, might want to consider that Fisher is running to the SEC West, where Saban has won five of the last nine national championships and has single-handedly turned the SEC into a revolving door of head coaches.
"I think it frustrates people what Nick has done there, and I can understand why," said Fisher, who was Saban's offensive coordinator at LSU. "It's probably the greatest run in college football history. So you can't judge everything off of what he's done there. But, at the same time, it's the standard you have to meet."
The key to Alabama's success, according to Fisher, is that Saban has continued to evolve and push the program forward.
"Nick hasn't gotten complacent, and we can't, either," Fisher said. "Everything we do here -- every drill, every practice -- is a competition. If you don't like competition, you don't need to be in this league."
Fisher was adamant when he was at Florida State that the ACC had reached a point at which it was as good as any league in the country. Now that he's back in the SEC, he still maintains that the ACC is right there at the top, but added, "The reason the ACC got so much better was because of the SEC. We had to figure out how to get better because they'd won seven titles in a row. The ACC was pushing that envelope extremely well. Listen, the ACC is tremendous and has made tremendous progress, but the SEC is the best conference in America. There's no doubt about it."
The Aggies' quarterback race is a close one. Nick Starkel is more of the prototypical passer, while Kellen Mond is the more athletic of the two. "They've both made a lot of progress in the last 10 days," Fisher said last Friday. "Mond has become a really good passer, and his pocket presence is good. He can run like a deer and is starting to understand the 'whys.' It's going to be very interesting."
There are several players in Fisher's first freshman class who have shown tons of promise this preseason, but the guy everybody keeps talking about is running back Jashaun Corbin, who's going to be a big part of the offense this season. He's got great speed and cutting ability and also catches the ball well. "He could move out to receiver if we needed him to," Fisher said.
Stop 3: Nebraska
Frost brings excitement back to Nebraska
Former Nebraska QB Scott Frost's return to coach his alma mater has energized the fan base, but what will it take to return the Cornhuskers to prominence?
LINCOLN, Neb. -- About once a week, former Nebraska Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne drops by his old quarterback's office to check in on him.
That old quarterback is now Nebraska's head coach, Scott Frost, who still finds it surreal to be talking to Osborne from the other side of the desk. It was 21 years ago at the Orange Bowl that they walked off the field together for the last time, Frost's final game in a Nebraska uniform and Osborne's final game as Nebraska's head coach, a storybook ending to the Huskers' last national championship.
They're back together now, and Osborne is like most Nebraskans. He's re-energized to see Frost back at his alma mater, and even more so to see Frost following the same blueprint that once made Nebraska one of college football's true powerhouses.
"It certainly has heightened my engagement and level of interest," said Osborne, who has been at more practices and frequented the football complex significantly more this offseason than in past years. "I've always been interested in Nebraska football no matter who the coach was, but having Scott back has brought it full circle for me."
And that's the way Frost wants it. He's gone out of his way to bring back all of the traditions and elements that were synonymous with Osborne's incredible run, which included back-to-back national championships in 1994 and 1995 and another one in 1997 when Osborne and Frost went out together as champions. At the top of Frost's list has been rekindling the walk-on program around the state and reconnecting with all of the high school coaches as well as revamping the strength and conditioning/nutrition program. The Huskers were innovators in both areas under Osborne.
"Nebraska was arguably the best program in the country for 30 years, and I think there was kind of an intentional departure around here from doing things the way they'd always been done," Frost told ESPN. "Some people wanted to do it a different way, do it their way. I'd be a fool not to look back at some of the things that made Nebraska great and try to recapture them."
Frost's staff has a distinct Nebraska flavor, including head strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval and director of performance nutrition Dave Ellis, who started the Nebraska nutrition department in 1994 and served as its director for eight years.
"Through practice, nutrition and strength and conditioning, we developed players as well as anybody in the country," Frost said. "The scholarship players got better, and the walk-on players by the time they were in their second, third, fourth and fifth years became starters and huge contributors here, and that's a piece that's been missing."
As much as anything, Frost wants to bring back what he says are "Nebraska values" to the football program.
"I always felt the football program here was a part of every Nebraskan because the qualities of what Nebraska football stood for were the same qualities as the guy working at the butcher shop or the guy laying irrigation pipe in Central Nebraska to help raise his corn," Frost said. "Those qualities -- honor, hard work, honesty and helping your neighbor and putting other people's needs ahead of yourself -- that's what Nebraska football was all about when I was here. I'm not saying it hasn't been, but I think there's been a little bit of disconnect between the people of Nebraska and this football program."
There were several big-name schools chasing Frost after last season, but Osborne thinks Nebraska's most serious threat was UCF and Frost remaining in Orlando. "There was a period of several weeks where I wasn't sure what was going to happen, and probably the biggest competitor that Nebraska had was UCF simply because of Scott's loyalty to his players," Osborne said.
Being able to recruit nationally is a must for the Huskers if they're going to return to prominence, but Frost said it will be equally important to keep the best players in the state at home. Since 2004, 29 Nebraska high school graduates have played in the NFL, and only 12 of them played for the Huskers. Frost gets it. He initially left the state to go play at Stanford, but wound up transferring back to Nebraska. "I came back and righted all the wrongs and made amends by the end," Frost said smiling. "When you're young, sometimes there's kind of a tendency to think the grass is greener somewhere else. I had to learn the hard way that the grass was greenest 90 miles from my hometown."
Frost has no interest in getting back into the whole UCF/Alabama national championship debate, at least not full bore. "We beat everybody they lined up against us, and you can never take that away from that group of kids," Frost said. "I've said over and over that I can't wait for the playoff to be an eight-team deal, five conference champions and three at-large teams, and then a team like we had last year would have a chance to prove it on the field."
Stop 2: Florida State
Taggart wants to bring pride back to Florida State
Willie Taggart made it his goal to become the head coach at Florida State, and now that he is, it's time to win.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - One of the first things Willie Taggart did during his initial preseason camp at Florida State was sit down with his players and coaches to watch the documentary film "The Bowden Dynasty: A Story of Faith, Family & Football."
Somewhere along the way, Taggart believes, this program lost touch with the Bowden legacy, and that's something the Seminoles' first-year coach is going out of his way to change.
"The biggest thing is pride, just bringing the pride back to Florida State University and teaching our guys and helping them understand the guys that came before them and why this place is so special and why it is what it is today," Taggart told ESPN. "I know when I got here, I sensed we didn't have that. I sensed our guys didn't understand. They understood the most recent history and most recent success, but not the success that started all of it. It was important to me that we educate our guys on that."
Taggart wants Bowden back around the program, and he's even hired Bowden's legendary former defensive coordinator, Mickey Andrews, to be his special assistant. Taggart, who grew up in Bradenton, Florida, as a huge FSU fan, has made a concerted effort to bring back former players. He said it really hit him how wide the disconnect had become when he was walking alongside former FSU star Deion Sanders one day soon after taking the job.
"Our players would walk by and be like, 'What's up, Coach T?'" Taggart recounted. "I'm like, 'Do you not see Deion Sanders walking next to me?' For me, that was the defining moment. Our guys didn't understand the path of the guys who came before them. I want our players to feel about Florida State the same way I did. They should. They go to school here. I didn't get a chance to go to school here. Take pride in this university again. The only way to do that is understand it."
Bowden said he plans to accept Taggart's invitation and come around the program more, even though, at 88, it's difficult for him to come to many of the games, especially with so many people wanting to talk with him, take pictures and get autographs.
"Ever since Willie's come here, he's done everything right," Bowden said. "When I say right, I mean it's what I would have done. He's bringing back the old guys. He loves Florida State. He loves being here. Everything fits."
Taggart joked that the real reason he wanted so many of the Bowden-era players to come back was to satisfy his own fandom.
"I had them back, selfishly, because a lot of those guys I wanted to meet," Taggart quipped.
The FSU players say they love Taggart's "swag," love the way he's even-keeled but always direct and also love the way he's instilled more of a family atmosphere in the program. "Our guys have to learn to play for each other," Taggart said. "As I watched the film from last year, I didn't see that. You'd talk to the guys and would notice that that wasn't what was going on. They have tons of talent here, but talent's not going to win us anything if we don't come together and play as a team."
All Cam Akers did a year ago was break Dalvin Cook's FSU freshman rushing record with 1,024 yards. He's already being mentioned in the Heisman Trophy talk for the 2018 season. The Seminoles' coaches also love redshirt freshman running back Khalan Laborn, who was begging to play in the bowl game last season even though he would have lost a year of eligibility. Laborn's ability to cut and change directions has been on full display this preseason.
Junior quarterback Deondre Francois said the most enduring lesson learned from last season's 7-6 finish was the importance of sticking together. "When adversity hits, leaders need to step up," he said. "Last year, I feel like we all shut down -- the leaders, the players, the newcomers, even some of the staff. We shut down as a program. Adversity is always going to hit. You can't run from it."
Taggart doesn't want to play two quarterbacks and thinks one guy will separate himself during camp. The one thing he did say was that Francois looks 100 percent healthy after tearing up his knee in the opener last season. "He put a move on somebody today where you were like, 'OK, he's back,'" Taggart said. Regardless of who wins the job, Taggart thinks the up-tempo offense will help the quarterback and offensive line.
Taggart's biggest concerns are depth on both the offensive line and at linebacker "We've got to do a good job as coaches teaching the game and not making it too confusing," Taggart said. "We've got some really talented players and need to let them play football and not slow them down by confusing them. The game's not that complicated. People complicate the game."
Bowden said he was glad to see Steve Spurrier coaching again in the new Alliance of American Football "because he loves coaching." But Bowden said he wants no part of Spurrier on the golf course. "I've played with him before. He wears me out. It's like two different games when he and I play. He makes you play every dadgum shot. He won't give you a putt like that," joked Bowden, holding his hands out about a foot apart.
Stop 1: Florida
Mullen looks to return Florida to former glory
Dan Mullen discusses returning the Gators to the offensive power Florida was when Mullen was the offensive coordinator.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- If Dan Mullen has his way, the Florida Gators will be stretching their vocal cords this season.
One of the traditions he's bringing back to Florida in his first season as head coach is the team singing the school's alma mater and fight song after wins. So it goes without saying that the Gators have been brushing up on the words to both songs in meetings and after practice this preseason. At any time, a random player could be called on by Mullen to stand up and belt out a few lines.
"I might miss a verse every now and then, but I'm getting there," said Florida junior defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, who will play the nickel or "Star" position in Todd Grantham's defense. "I feel like we're going to be singing the fight song and alma mater all 12 games during the regular season and then two more, and then after the season, one more during celebration week.
"We're going to be singing like a choir."
Steve Spurrier, who loved the tradition when he was coaching the Gators, is certainly on board.
"Every school ought to do it," said Spurrier, who broke into an impromptu rendition of the alma mater before adding that he sounded a lot better when he was singing with somebody.
Spurrier, who keeps an office in the Florida athletic complex in his role as ambassador, is also on board with Mullen's offense, which he believes will remind Florida fans of the one they grew accustomed to when the Head Ball Coach was piling up six SEC championships and a national championship with his Fun 'n' Gun offense in the 1990s. In Spurrier's office, a veritable treasure trove of memorabilia from his coaching and playing days, he has both of the game balls from his first game as coach at Florida and his last game as the Gators' coach.
They scored 50 or more points in both games.
"I'm not sure we've scored that many points combined in the last couple of years," Spurrier quipped in vintage fashion.
Mullen isn't naïve about how offensively-starved the Florida fans have been over the last few years.
"The Gator fans always associate fun with points, not always even winning," Mullen said. "It's fun winning with points. But Coach Spurrier did that because nobody has had more success than he has through the years at Florida, and he did it by scoring points. That's how Florida fans associate with winning -- scoring points. But I want our guys to enjoy playing and enjoy what it is to be a Florida Gator and have fun and look like they're enjoying life out there on the field. Once we start having fun on the field, I think our fans are going to start having fun and we're going to bring the fun back to Florida football."
Spurrier doubled down on his belief that there should be a zero-tolerance policy for coaches and players when it comes to any kind of domestic abuse or sexual assault. "That was one rule where there was no negotiating with me," Spurrier said. "There were other things where if it was his first offense, maybe we would suspend him a game or something. But that one, you were gone, and I let the guys know early and often that if you ever hit a girl or assaulted a girl in any way that you were finished. I wish it was an NCAA rule and that every college had it."
Mullen, who was a part of national championship teams at Florida in 2006 and 2008, isn't making a lot of promises. But he does promise one thing: Nobody's expectations are higher than his own. "I'm not a patient person," he said. "I expect to compete for a championship this year. That's just me. But I also know the expectations for this year's team and building the program long term, and they are separate entities. I understand it may take a little time to build the program to a championship level when you're competing every year for a championship."
Mullen has been tabbed as somewhat of a quarterback whisperer with his ability to evaluate and develop quarterbacks, and Florida fans are hoping that's the case now that he's back in Gainesville. The last five seasons, they have finished 102nd nationally, 79th nationally, 86th nationally, 106th nationally and 109th nationally in passing offense. "Our quarterbacks have talent, but we've got to mold the talent," Mullen said. "The one thing, to me, that I have learned with the quarterbacks is that it's not a quick fix. You're not going to develop a quarterback in six weeks or even in one season. ... There's not a magic wand or dust I can sprinkle on and they're all of a sudden going to be perfect. It's developed over time, but our guys have talent and the skill set."
Even though Mullen is a head coach with an offensive background, he's looking for defensive players and still thinks you win on defense, Grantham said. And that's refreshing for a defensive coordinator. "He gets it," said Grantham, who was with Mullen at Mississippi State last season. "He's an offensive guy, but he recruits defense. A lot of offensive guys are not like that. It's about the offense. But he really believes that one of the first things you have to do is play great defense if you're going to win a championship. He also calls the game that way, and what I mean by that is if you're playing good on defense and have a two-possession lead, he will shrink the game and you don't have to play a lot of plays, where some guys will just keep going and going."
Mullen said he plans to call the plays again on offense this season, but said it would be a team effort, especially with the familiarity he has with his staff. "We have an offensive staff that has worked together for a long time," Mullen said. "It's not just I call the plays and everybody else listens. Everybody has a lot of input to what we're doing on the field. ... There may be times that I'm clicking over and want to talk to the defense when we're on the field and say, 'Hey, Brian (Johnson) or Billy (Gonzales) or Jon (Hevesy), call the play. I've got to cover this with the defense.' Everybody is really in the same rhythm with what we're trying to do."