ATLANTA — Of 68 offensive and defensive players announced Friday by the Southeastern Conference as preseason All-SEC selections, just 10 are sophomores, and only three of those sophomores earned first-team designation.
One of them was Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Smith, who comprised the entirety of the Volunteers’ delegation on the annual preseason teams as voted on by reporters at SEC Media Days.
The absence of other Tennessee players is a reminder of the talent disparity between the Vols and the other teams in the SEC as first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt takes over and faces a daunting schedule.
Just two seasons ago, media picked Tennessee to win the SEC East and tabbed three Vols to the preseason All-SEC first-team defense. That year, the Vols placed nine players on preseason All-SEC teams.
This season, only Vanderbilt (0) had fewer players selected to a preseason All-SEC team. Media picked the Vols to finish sixth in the division, ahead of only the Commodores.
“Pruitt’s got a tough task on his hands,” ESPN “Monday Night Football” analyst and former Tennessee tight end Jason Witten said on the SEC Network this week. “But I like the mentality and the mindset he is bringing in Knoxville.”
Pruitt used his debut at SEC Media Days on Wednesday to emphasize that he believes Tennessee’s coaches, players, administrators and fans are “headed in the right direction.”
“Our fan base is hungry, our players are hungry. As you go across the Southeast, you encounter so many Tennessee fans,” Pruitt said. “They’re everywhere. You can feel the passion. You can feel the energy. And it excites me. It’s an honor to have the opportunity to represent this fan base.”
Pruitt has shied from quantifying his expectations for the upcoming season, which begins Sept. 1 against West Virginia in Charlotte, North Carolina. But Smith provides at least one reason for optimism that Tennessee can meet or exceed the modest expectations placed on them by media.
The lone offensive lineman to start all 12 games for the Vols during last year’s 4-8 campaign, Smith is a future NFL prospect with leadership qualities and the versatility to play multiple positions on the line. His status for the upcoming season came into question over the last several months after an undisclosed health issue kept him from participating in spring practices, but Pruitt indicated Wednesday that Smith will be available during preseason practices next month.
Smith’s return, plus the addition of Alabama graduate transfer Brandon Kennedy, will solidify Tennessee’s offensive line entering preseason camp.
Still, the realities of a brutal schedule await. Pruitt, a former defensive coordinator at Georgia and Alabama, denied having any particular game “circled on the calendar” for the upcoming season. He knows that — with the exception of three games against inferior nonconference foes — there are no sure bets in this league.
“I should have talked to (SEC commissioner Greg) Sankey about it,” Pruitt said with a wry smile as he discussed a schedule that pits the Vols against the projected top two teams in the SEC West in Alabama and Auburn.
Pruitt said he told Sankey about the schedule that “heck, we might as well have the Eagles, the ’85 Bears and maybe Grayson High School.”
Contact David Cobb at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @DavidWCobb and on Facebook at facebook.com/volsupdate.