Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure on Rocky Top has gotten off to quite the rocky start.
Through five games, Tennessee is 2-3 on the season and 0-2 in SEC play, sitting in seventh place in the SEC East standings. Following an embarrassing showing against Florida in front of the 1998 National Championship team, it felt as if Tennessee football was dead. But then the program marched down to Athens, Georgia and showed signs of life.
“I learned we’ve got fight in us,” Pruitt said following the loss to Georgia with his emotions flowing. “Our guys kept fighting, which means we’re headed in the right direction, and that excites me. That’s why I’m getting a little bit emotional.”
The fight shown against the Dawgs is something to build on as Tennessee enters its bye week. Despite there still being a long way to go, Pruitt sees the team getting better. If you ask Tennessee safety Nigel Warrior about the head ball coach showing emotion, the junior will tell you that it makes them want to play even harder for him.
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“I would say that I feel like we played, and we fought that game and we got better,” Warrior said on Tuesday. “(Pruitt) got a little emotional because he can see us getting better, and with that being said, that makes us want to play even harder for him.”
Tennessee’s defense has gradually improved from game to game this season. Against West Virginia, the Vols’ secondary struggled mightily. Three weeks later against Florida, Pruitt thought players such as Baylen Buchanan played their best game since the new coaching staff arrived. Then against Georgia, the front seven established a pass-rush for the first time all season.
“We’re starting to trust each other, we’re starting to actually become one,” Warrior said on the defense’s progress through the first five games. “It just shows us that we need to become one, get tighter and start to trust each other on and off the field. Coaches, players, just trust each other and do our job and execute.”
There were good things and bad things against Georgia, as the Vols executed on both sides of the ball at times better than they had all year. But the plan for the bye week is to get back to the basics and to continue to improve.
“I think we executed a lot better this week,” center Ryan Johnson said. “There are still things we need to put together, and there are still things that we need to improve on, and I think it’s great we’re going into a bye week. We can focus on us, we can work on us, and I think that’s all we need to do this week.”
The improvements aren’t just seen on defense, but across the entire team. The offense has been better at times this season and parts of the special teams has been good. Tennessee is nowhere near where it needs to be right now, but where the program stood last season or even after the Florida game a week and a half ago, it’s all about baby steps and progress.
“I think Coach Pruitt is doing a great job at helping us improve and get better as a team and get better as players individually and as a group,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but I think we’ve made some great improvements and some great strides. We just need to keep doing that and keep pushing. Keep our head down and take it one day at a time.”
Getting back to the basics includes everything. The mental challenge, the physical aspect, the weight room, the techniques and the schemes. While Pruitt is helping the players improve on the field, Tennessee strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald continues to make sure the players are not only ready to go physically, but mentally.
“We’ve got some strong guys on our team,” Johnson said. “But football is more of a mental game than what people give it credit for. It’s a big chess game.
“It’s almost like doing calculus. If you mess up the first step, it doesn’t matter because you’re not going to get the last step right. Your problem isn’t going to be right. If you mess up the simple algebra from the beginning, it doesn’t matter how well you know how to integrate – you’re going to screw up. I think that’s what we have to focus on, going back to the simple details, and I think that’s what we’re going to do this week.”