As the 2020 college football season approaches, it has becoming a more widely held opinion that the Tennessee Volunteers are trending up entering their third year under Jeremy Pruitt. The Vols have recruited well under Pruitt, and have also been intentional in targeting players that fit their system well. However, more than just talent, the Vols have been developing players from both a skill and technique standpoint, as well as a physical standpoint. Much of the credit for the physical development Tennessee has seen, a team that is bigger, stronger, and better conditioned, was attributed to Craig Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was on Pruitt's initial staff at Tennessee, and was regarded as one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the country. On March 19th of this year, Fitzgerald left Knoxville to become the head strength and conditioning coach for the New York Giants. This left the Vols with a key hole in their staff to fill, and with the nation shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Vols had to put naming a successor to Fitzgerald briefly on hold. Now, the Vols have elected to promote from within, naming AJ Artis as the new Director of Sports Performance.
Artis was also part of Jeremy Pruitt's initial staff at Tennessee, joining the Vols from serving as the assistant director of strength and conditioning at Duke. Artis has long been considered a likely candidate to become the new strength and conditioning coach for the Vols because of what he has already done during his time in Knoxville. First, Artis worked closely with Fitzgerald since joining the Tennessee staff. What Fitzgerald had implemented was clearly working, and Artis is already well acquainted with what those processes were as well as the theory and reasoning behind them. Artis has also served to help shift the culture at Tennessee, and in the weight room in particular, to what Pruitt is wanting the team to become. That shift appears to be successful and progressing, so promoting from within, elevating a coach that is not only familiar with that shift, but had played an integral role in facilitating it, makes sense. Artis is a known commodity to Pruitt and the team. They know what the requirements are for the team to continue improving, and they know Artis well. Clearly Pruitt thinks he is up to the task and is a valuable part of the culture he is trying to develop. Artis has all the qualifications and experience for this role with Tennessee, having served on strength and conditioning staffs at Duke, Appalachian State, and Campbell before coming to Knoxville. Still, more than credentials, it is the familiarity that Artis has within the program that makes him such a good fit for this role.
Tennessee is trending in the right direction, and the strength and conditioning program has been a huge reason why. Consistency is key to the success of strength programs, and with Artis, the Vols should retain that consistency. While Artis is likely to make some tweaks to the system, they are likely to be minor as he helped create the successful system the Vols employed under Fitzgerald. That means the Vols should continue to see the kind of physical development in players that has allowed them to improve. Artis also has helped to change the culture in perhaps one of the most important and most difficult areas for Tennessee. He will continue to grow that culture, rather than needing time to acclimate or learn it. Artis checks all the boxes the Vols are looking for on paper, while also serving to ensure stability and continued success within the program. A strength and conditioning coach plays a tremendous role in the success of a football team, and the Vols just promoted a man that has already proven himself as a valuable asset in that area.