Tennessee football on the beat: Jeremy Pruitt pays Vols' Naples duo ultimate compliment

KNOXVILE, Tenn. — Jeremy Pruitt is still taking inventory, learning what he has with this Tennessee football team and mulling more position changes.

The Vols’ first-year head coach said Saturday, however, that the Naples, Fla., duo of Carlin Fils-aime and Tyler Byrd appear destined to stay in the secondary.

“Just being around them, they are good competitors and they have toughness,” said Pruitt, who so far most often declines to make specific comments on players when asked. “I think both of them have the skill set to contribute back there.”

That’s good news, because Fils-aime appeared too small to be an every-down tailback in Tennessee’s new pro-style offense. Fils-aime had only 31 carries for 215 yards last season, despite averaging 6.9 yards per rush.

Byrd, as talented of an athlete as he quickly proved himself to be, did not look natural with the ball in his hands after the catch as a receiver. Former Vols defensive coordinator Bob Shoop indicated he hoped he could get Byrd on defense at some point, but Tennessee coaches felt there was more need on the offensive side of the ball at receiver.

Byrd had just 3 catches for 27 yards, however, despite GPS metrics indicating he was the fastest player on the team his freshman season.

Pruitt seems otherwise confident with the secondary, and that also says a lot considering he coached that position group for DB-guru Nick Saban at Alabama.

“These guys stay up here watching tape all the time, every time I walk by, they are watching tape, so they are hungry, which is important,” Pruitt said when asked about returning starting safeties Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy.

“They have a lot of pride in Tennessee football, which is important,” Pruitt said. “I think watching them on the field, they are trying to do it the right way, so we’ll be fine back there as long as they keep doing that.”

Warrior will need to be better playing assignment football, and Abernathy must show his new head coach that his tackling miscues and poor angles of 2017 were an aberration.

But there’s plenty of time for that, 12 more spring practices including the April 21 Orange and White Game at Neyland Stadium.

RELATED: Escape from Florida, Tyler Byrd and Carlin Fils-aime leave Sunshine State commitments behind

Byrd and Fils-aime — who lived together their final years of high school — figure to  become special teams standouts in the return and/or coverage game until they become starters in the secondary. Byrd had seven blocked extra-point kicks and field goals his senior season. Fils-aime blocked five points that same year.

Byrd is playing at safety, and Fils-aime is competing at cornerback. But the Naples duo is simply too talented not to be weekly contributors in some capacity.

It’s something that needs to happen for all parties involved, because there were plenty of other schools that recruited Byrd and Fils-aime who would gladly open up scholarships.

Indeed, former Vols offensive coordinator Larry Scott is now an assistant at Florida, and he knows of their abilities better than anyone.

Tennessee’s retention was lacking under the previous coaching regime. Pruitt knows the importance of maximizing the returning talent on his roster.

The fact Pruitt chose to move Byrd and Fils-aime into the secondary — and then comment on their abilities — is evidence he holds them in high regard and wants to keep them at Tennessee.

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