Everything that could have gone wrong for Tennessee on Saturday in the 2019 season opener went wrong.
That doesn’t even include the incidents off the field where a boat from the Vol Navy caught fire and sank to the bottom of the Tennessee River to begin the day. Or the fact that a poor member of the Pride of the Southland Band passed out on the field at halftime and had to be helped off.
What went wrong on the football field is that Jeremy Pruitt’s second-year squad lost to a Sun Belt team that was coming off a 2-10 season. To pile on to the fact, Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, nor Butch Jones ever lost to a non-power five team.
Tennessee has no time to sit around and sulk, however. A formidable opponent in BYU (0-1) will arrive in town on Friday night looking to get back on track after losing to its rival in its season opener.
Pruitt met with the media on Monday to discuss what all went wrong during Saturday’s embarrassment. He also previewed the Cougars ahead of Saturday’s 7 p.m. kickoff on ESPN. These were Pruitt’s key talking points.
A big fat pie of disappointment
As noted, Saturday was a complete embarrassment.
Though realistic Tennessee fans didn’t enter the season with expectations of an SEC East championship in 2019, there was still a lot of excitement surrounding the beginning of Year Two under Pruitt. Jim Chaney had been stolen from Georgia, Craig Fitzgerald had been retained, Tee Martin had returned home, and Derrick Ansley was hired away from the NFL.
In addition to a terrific coaching staff on paper that cost quite a bit of money to put together, the offense returned a veteran quarterback to go along with a talented running back and wide receiver room. And despite offensive line struggles a season ago, Pruitt signed two of the top linemen in the country in the 2019 class.
But the excitement for year two under the former Alabama defensive coordinator quickly dissipated during Saturday’s game. Tennessee has officially hit rock bottom and apathy amongst the fans have set in. When asked what his message to disappointed Vol fans would be, Pruitt responded that he hoped the fanbase was as disappointed as the team.
“Everybody in this building is disappointed,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got to go back and go to work.
“We’ve got to go back and practice the right way, work on creating the right habits. I’ll say it again. We’re young and inexperienced and we’ve got to continue to grow. The most you improve is from the first week to the second week.”
Tennessee hit the practice field on Monday, though it was closed to the media. While there may be too much to fix in the 20 allotted hours the coaching staff is allowed to work with the players during the week, Monday’s practice is a great opportunity according to the head ball coach.
“If we’re made the right way, and I’m talking about what’s inside of us, about wanting to go back and having a little bit of pride about who you represent and who you play for, then you go back and you dig a little deeper, try a little harder, and maybe watch a little more film here, or do a little extra in the weight room,” Pruitt said. “Whatever it is, look in the mirror and figure out what we’ve got to do, each and every one of us, to get better, and that’s what we’ve got to do in this building.”
Jarrett Guarantano’s performance
If you looked at Jarrett Guarantano’s stat line from Saturday without watching the football game, you’d think the redshirt junior started his season off on the right foot.
Guarantano completed 65 percent of his passes, threw for 311 yards, and tossed two touchdowns. Sure, the box score shows an interception, but what it doesn’t show is the corner blitz he failed to pick up that resulted in a fumble, the interception in the red zone before halftime that was called back because of defensive pass interference, or the miscommunication between him and his receivers.
“We’ve got to be able to manage the offense,” Pruitt said when asked what he wants to see from Guarantano against BYU. “Jarrett (Guarantano) put a lot of good plays together.
“Unfortunately, at that position, the ball goes through your hand every snap. There’s plays that he probably left out there on the field. He could’ve changed protections a couple of times and didn’t. He can do that. He’s got that capability. He needs to be efficient and stay within the offense.”
Assessing the trenches
While Guarantano didn’t have his best day at the office on Saturday, his offensive line didn’t do him any favors.
Pruitt claimed during his press conference that during the first 55 snaps of Saturday’s game, Tennessee didn’t allow a sack or a quarterback pressure. A rewatch of the game would say otherwise in terms of Guarantano being pressured.
The Vols didn’t allow a sack until the third quarter when Wanya Morris whiffed on a block, but in terms of pressure, Guarantano was pressured four times on the second offensive possession of the game — well within the first 55 snaps of the game.
“I felt like Jahmir Johnson, Brandon Kennedy, and Darnell Wright probably played the best,” Pruitt said. “But a lot of the other guys had a lot of good moments, and they’re going to continue to improve and get better.
“We have to be able to run the football consistently to give us a chance to run some play action passes and push the ball down the field.”
In terms of the defensive line, the unit also struggled to generate a push against Georgia State. But it wasn’t just the defensive front that struggled to stop the run. It was all three levels of the defense.
The Panthers rushed for 213 yards on their way to 352 total yards of offense. Running back Dra Barnett rushed for a team-high 95 yards on 21 carries while quarterback Dan Ellington rushed for 61 yards on 14 carries. Barnett and Ellington both ran for a touchdown.
“We have lots of inexperience on that side of the ball,” Pruitt said. “I said early on that we wanted to keep it simple, and we’re keeping it simple so we can execute.
“We had a lot of alignment issues, but to me it’s not as much communication, I think a lot of it just comes with experience. Being able to set the front, and they’re not lined up correctly, I have to move them somewhere and get them lined up. So, it was kind of all three levels of the defense, but it’s something that we can fix.”
Other quick talking points..
- Jordan Murphy did not play on Saturday. According to Pruitt, the junior wide receiver was sick last week. Tennessee ran some tests on him, and he should be able to practice on Monday, though he’ll have to get his weight back up.
- Ty Chandler fumbled twice on Saturday and when the game was on the line in the second half, it was freshman running back Eric Gray who was in the game. Pruitt stated the importance of securing the football when asked about it and said that they chose to ride the “hot hand” in Gray.”He did make some guys miss,” Pruitt said of Gray. “He probably needs to put a foot in the ground and get north and south a little bit more, but he’s a guy that what we saw Saturday is what we’ve seen this entire fall camp.”
- Senior outside linebacker Darrell Taylor said that the team didn’t study enough film following Saturday’s loss. Pruitt’s response: “As far as knowing enough, when you look at our game plan, it was pretty simple. I’m satisfied that our guys understood it and what we’re doing. There comes a point where you just have to play by principles and concepts. Especially early on, it’s smart to keep it simple so the kids can do that and play fast. We’ll continue to do that. That’s what I believe in until you get a whole body of work where you can see where a team has created an identity through three, four, or five games in a season.”
- Pruitt mentioned that the defense had a substitution error and that was his fault, but in terms of how he thought the new coaching staff coached together for the first time, he was pleased with how it went.”The coaching staff did a good job, in my opinion, as far as in-game adjustments and coaching the guys,” Pruitt stated. “There are things that we can do that we’ve obviously got to do better. Our guys will get better. The more you do it, the better you get at it and we’ve got a great opportunity this week.”
- To end his press conference, Pruitt was asked whether he thought this team had a leader. His vague answer was telling.“We have some good leaders on this team. Here’s the thing about leadership: it’s easy to be the leader after the game. It’s easy to be the leader in a meeting before practice. But when the bullets start flying and things don’t go your way, that’s when you need good leadership. We have plenty of guys capable of doing that. I believe we have good leaders on this team. We have a lot of guys that are younger, and they respond to the leadership. There’s no secret to why we lost this game. I said it after the game. They did a better job coaching than we did. They executed better than we did. It’s not because we lacked leadership. It’s not because we lacked effort. It’s because we lacked execution. They executed better than we did. We turned the ball over five times and only got one turnover. It’s hard to beat anybody that way.”