Jeremy Pruitt understood what he was inheriting when he agreed to become Tennessee’s head coach last December.
The Vols were coming off a season in which they didn’t win an SEC game and lost eight games for the first time in program history. Add in the disastrous coaching search, and Tennessee was as unattractive as ever. But Pruitt bought in despite the adversities that the program was maneuvering through.
Fast forward 10 months later, and Pruitt is now emphasizing to his players that adversities come and go. It’s part of what makes football such a beautiful sport.
“This is football,” junior linebacker Daniel Bituli said to reporters on Tuesday. “For us to be able to face adversity and stand firm to it, I think that’s the biggest defensive attribute we have as a team.”
Similar to last season, Tennessee has already faced its fair share of adversity throughout Pruitt’s first season.
With hopes of a new culture in place and former high-level recruits producing, the Vols were blown out by West Virginia to start the season. Two weeks later in front of an electrifying crowd, Tennessee turned it over six times in a blowout loss to arch-rival Florida.
Last season, the team would have crumbled in the face of adversity. This season, Tennessee is locking hands as it looks to smack adversity in the face.
“I think that we have improved in a lot of ways,” redshirt senior defensive lineman Alexis Johnson said. “I think that the biggest thing that we have improved on is coming together and playing as a team.”
West Virginia and Florida put a damper on the mood surrounding the program, but last time out the Vols showed signs of improvement. Yes, Tennessee fell to another rival, Georgia, by 26. But with the current state of Tennessee football being as low as it’s ever been, signs of fight needed to be seen. And that’s what was shown on the field.
“I think that our fight (is a big improvement),” junior defensive back Baylen Buchanan said. “We are not giving up. We keep fighting for 60 minutes. I feel like we need to get better at tackling and getting off the field on third downs.”
The change of mindset can be credited to Pruitt, who according to Bituli has not changed one bit since arriving in Knoxville despite the rocky start to his tenure.
“He is the most consistent coach that I have probably ever met,” Bituli added. “He is as tough as any coach I have ever seen. He preaches the same thing over and over again. You can tell each and every day he is staying the same. He wants tough guys out there on the field, and he preaches that every day.”
Five games in to Pruitt’s tenure, the players are becoming more accustomed. Accustomed to Pruitt’s ways, accustomed to the schemes, and accustom to each other.
“We are more comfortable with the scheme because we have been in it longer,” Johnson said. “It just comes with time, and we have to keep repping it.”
The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Tennessee. With Auburn reeling both on and off the field, it allowed the Vols to rest up and get back to the fundamentals.
“We worked on fundamentals and everything,” Johnson stated. “We worked a little on Auburn, but mostly fundamentals and getting better as players.”
Fundamentals and progression will be as important as ever against No. 21 Auburn. The Tigers are coming off a loss to Mississippi State on the road, but the result isn’t the biggest problem Auburn is facing. On Monday night, Brandon Marcello of Auburn Undercover reported that the locker room is divided as ever, and that star quarterback Jarrett Stidham isn’t regarded highly in the eyes of teammates.
Despite the dysfunction on the plains, Tennessee will still need to play a near perfect game to upset the Tigers. Auburn’s defense is one of the best in the country, and Stidham is still a future pro.
“He has an arm,” Buchanan said of Stidham. “He can launch the ball. He is more of a traditional quarterback compared to what they have had in the past. He can run the ball. It does not alarm us, but yes, he can use his feet too.
“We just have to pay attention to the details. Obviously, conditioning is going to play a big factor in this game because of their tempo. They come out in a lot of different looks that we have not seen before. We have to pay attention in practice and execute every play.”
Tennessee and Auburn will kick off on Saturday at 11 a.m. local time. Auburn fans will stripe the stadium, looking to spark their Tigers. With a newfound comfort and trust within one another, Tennessee will be looking to catch the reeling Tigers by the tail.