On Monday, Jeremy Pruitt met with the media following Saturday’s debacle against the Gators. And he had a lot to say about that game, UT’s upcoming match-up with Georgia, some of his players, and much more.
Here’s a full recap of what Pruitt and some of his players had to say on Monday.
The Sapp Situation
As if Tennessee’s performance on the field wasn’t enough, drama found its way on the sideline during the game. In the post-game press conference, Pruitt stated that he asked redshirt junior linebacker Quart’e Sapp to leave the field after he refused to enter the game when asked.
On Sunday morning, Sapp took to Twitter, saying he didn’t refuse to go in the game, contradicting what Pruitt said following the game.
“During the UT vs UF game, I never was asked, nor did I ever refuse to go into the game,” Sapp said on Twitter. “There was a sideline confrontation (I’m sure will be resolved internally) that occurred, and the other party involved had to be restrained.
“I will continue to be fully committed and giving “My All for Tennessee” on and off the field!”
Sapp will still be a part of Tennessee’s football team going forward, as Pruitt indicated that the situation will be handled internally after he spoke with Sapp on Sunday. Following the game on Saturday, Pruitt stated that Sapp had been a great ambassador for the program. He echoed that same sentiment on Monday.
“After him and I sat down and talked, it would be between us and we would keep it in house,” Pruitt told the media. “I said it the other night, and I’ll say it to our players: since I’ve been here, he (Sapp) has been a really good ambassador to our football program, to our team, and he’s been a good leader on our team. Everybody makes mistakes, so we’re going to move on, and we’ll go from there.”
Pruitt didn’t directly specify if Sapp would receive a punishment.
Upon Further Review
With the off-the-field drama settled, it was time to shift the focus to the problems on the field, beginning with quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
Late in the third quarter, Guarantano exited the game after taking a late hit. Moments after Guarantano let go of the football, Florida defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson hit him below the waist, appearing to go for the knees of Guarantano.
— David Cobb (@DavidWCobb) September 23, 2018
No penalty was called on the play, and Guarantano limped off the field with what Vol fans were afraid could be a major knee injury. Luckily for the team and for UT’s fans, it appears their starting quarterback will be just fine.
“I saw him yesterday throwing balls and dropping in the indoor facility,” Pruitt said of Guarantano. “Jarrett got banged up a little bit, but I said when I first took the job that Jarrett is a tough guy.”
While Tennessee fans were concerned about Guarantano’s health following the late hit, many were irate with what they believe was a dirty hit. Pruitt just saw a guy playing hard.
“It is unfortunate Jarrett got hit the way he did,” Pruitt added. “But guys play hard, and it wasn’t intentional by any means, the guy just stumbled around. No, we didn’t send it in (to the SEC offices).”
Leadership Beginning to Emerge
One thing that has been apparent to this point in the season is that Tennessee lacks leaders on the field. The Vols have too many Indians and not enough Chiefs. But on Sunday, Pruitt saw something he hadn’t seen yet this year.
Many of Tennessee’s players took it upon themselves to come in on Sunday and get in the film room. According to Pruitt, the football offices were littered with players watching tape.
“There’s a group of guys that had them in there, talking about players and being leaders,” Pruitt said. “That’s the first time I’ve seen that, but I saw some ownership during the game the other day that excites me about moving forward.
“Some guys really played their best game. And as more adversity hit, I saw guys try to play at their best, so that was positive. What we have to do is not create adversity ourselves. I’ve said it all along, we have to fix us before we start worrying about other teams.”
The defensive back room has been one of the many groups that has clearly lacked leadership through four games. Before the season, many hoped Nigel Warrior would be the guy that would step up and lead an inexperienced defensive back room. It may have taken four games to do so, but it appears that Warrior is beginning to take that step.
According to junior corner Baylen Buchanan, Warrior is the one who called up all of the defensive backs and put the film session together.
“I know the DBs after the game, we talked, and we said we were going to get in the film room and watch the game as a group,” Buchanan said. “And that’s what we did.”
Something to Build On
Florida blew out Tennessee because of turnovers, not because the Gators were flat-out superior. The Vols held Florida to 387 yards of offense, 186 of which were through the air. Florida did rush for 201 yards, but a healthy portion of those yards came later in the game when the defense had been on the field for a while and the game was out of reach.
“We had several guys that played their best game,” Pruitt said of the defense. “There’s three times that they created explosive plays in the passing game. Two times, we had guys relatively close to the guy that catches the ball. We have to finish on the ball.
“Another time, we had everybody covered, and when the quarterback scrambles, we turn everybody loose, which created an explosive play.”
Part of the performance in the secondary was in large part because of the improved play of Buchanan. According to Pruitt, Saturday was one of Buchanan’s better games.
“He’s one of the guys that I saw that I felt like answered the bell a little bit,” Pruitt stated. “I can remember one play in the game that I thought he could’ve done better on the ball down the sideline. He played a lot of press coverage and guarded guys really well.
“Baylen has talent, and he’s gaining confidence.”
Though Buchanan stepped up and tied for the team lead with five tackles, the Georgia native is just focused on improving week-in and week-out.
“We’ve got to build every week,” Buchanan said. “We’ve got to learn from last week, we’ve got to take it, got to live with it. It’s just as important that we learn from our mistakes and come to practice today.”
Turnovers Bite the Offense
Tennessee’s offense struggled mightily against Florida, turning the football over six times and committing six penalties for over 10 yards per penalty. The Vols couldn’t get anything going in the running game and struggled to protect Guarantano. That resulted in giving Florida great field position, particularly giving them a short field three different times.
“Ball security is something that we work on every single day on both sides of the ball,” Pruitt said. “When you look at it from an offensive side, there were several opportunities that we had to create some explosive plays. We have to improve in the run game. I thought this game was by far the worst game for us as far as being effective running the football. We have to be able to find our blocks up front, and the backs have to fall forward. We have to protect the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
“We have to do a better job protecting the quarterback, and the quarterbacks have to do a better job getting the ball out of their hands a little faster.”
A large part of the offense’s struggles starts up front with the offensive line. The group has struggled to find consistency in the run game, and against Florida they struggled to protect the quarterback. too. Despite the issues, Pruitt indicated on Monday that they’ve narrowed it down to the guys they think will give Tennessee the best chance to succeed.
“I’ve said it takes all five, so to me there’s a lot to finishing blocks,” Pruitt explained. “I thought this week we were much cleaner and going in the right direction and playing with the right pad level. As the game wore on, I didn’t see guys finishing the way they were in the first half.”
If you ask sophomore Trey Smith what the issues are, he says the group just needs to get tougher.
“Just finishing through blocks,” Smith stated. “We need to sustain ourselves the whole game.”
On to the Next One
The gauntlet has arrived. Tennessee travels to Athens on Saturday to take on No. 2 Georgia as the Vols kick-off a three-game stretch that includes a trip to No. 10 Auburn before No. 1 Alabama comes to town.
Saturday’s contest will be a match-up of former Nick Saban assistant coaches when Pruitt and Kirby Smart square-off. The pair worked together for six years in Tuscaloosa.
“Kirby is a really good football coach,” Pruitt said of Georgia’s head coach and his former colleague. “He is a very hard worker and focuses on the details. He is a good coach on the field. He is a good scheme guy, and it’s not just defensively. He is involved in special teams, and he’s involved in the offense.”
Just like Saban has placed his stamp all over his football team at Alabama, so has Smart at Georgia. In many ways, the Bulldogs have become Alabama 2.0 – or they’re at least on the verge of doing so.
“I see a physical football team,” Pruitt said. “I thought Jake Fromm was the most efficient quarterback that we played against last year. He is very accurate. He’s like a coach on the field. He has command, and he keeps them out of bad plays and even puts them in good plays.
“Offensively, they are one of the best teams in the country. Defensively, they have big men up front, linebackers that can run, guys that rush the quarterback, guys who can deny the ball in the back end. Kirby and Mel Tucker have always done a good job at creating different looks that give you problems. They are really good at special teams because they have speed. They have a great football team, and they are really well coached.”
Tennessee and No. 2 Georgia will kickoff at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. The game will be televised on CBS.