A 2-5 start to Jeremy Pruitt’s third season as Tennessee’s head coach has riled up Vols fans who were expecting more success following an eight-game win streak that ended the 2019 season and ran through the first two games of this year.
Some of those fans took to Vol Calls on Wednesday to voice their frustration on the air waves to Pruitt himself, as well as athletic director Phillip Fulmer.
One of those fans, ironically calling in under the name of “Phillip,” asked Pruitt when he was going to admit that he wasn’t a “ball coach” and when he was going back to “Alabama,” where Pruitt played defensive back for former Crimson Tide head coach Gene Stallings from 1995-96. Pruitt later served as an assistant coach under Nick Saban in three different stints.
“Well Phillip, you got to know I am pretty hard-headed,” Pruitt responded. “I feel your frustration, man. I am with you, I am frustrated, too. But we’re working hard and we’re going to continue to work hard to put a product out there that you can be proud of.”
While Pruitt’s answer, and on-field performance to this point, may not be satisfactory enough for Vols fans to be patient at this point, Fulmer later joined the call-in show and backed Pruitt and the job he has done in nearly three seasons in Knoxville.
“We have a great fanbase, I love our fans,” Fulmer said. “But I am going to tell you, there’s nobody more impatient than Jeremy Pruitt. He’s intense and relentless to get done what he wants to get done.”
Fulmer even compared Pruitt’s head coaching record at this point in his career to one former Tennessee head coach.
“An interesting statistic that I found was Coach (Johnny) Majors was 14-15-1 in his first 30 games and Coach Pruitt is 15-15 in his first 30 games,” Fulmer said. “I really think we’re a better football team than our record has shown.
“Team plays hard and I think the Auburn game was a good example of that. But we’re not taking care of the ball and protecting it like we should and we certainly haven’t gotten the takeaways that you would think a normal aggressive defense would get.”
Whether or not Pruitt will go on to replicate the success that Majors had as a head coach at Tennessee remains to be seen, but Fulmer made it clear on Vol Calls that despite the mistakes, the football program is in better shape than when Pruitt arrived in December 2017. According to Fulmer, one reason for the struggles this season can be attributed to the lack of spring practice and offseason preparation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They understand the system on both sides of the ball much better,” Fulmer said. “The coaches have done a really good job of that, but young teams have probably been the most affected by all this COVID business and we needed a full spring practice. You’ve been through that, their offseason program and spring practice, and I’ve been there a bunch of different times where that’s where you build your team. We needed a full summer and we didn’t get that, throwing and catching, and we needed a consistent fall camp and we haven’t gotten any of that.”
Fulmer acknowledged that the problems caused by the pandemic aren’t unique to Tennessee. Every college football team in the country has had to work through the protocols and changes, but that the youth of this Vols team has made the transition harder.
“It’s a challenge on every team and all over the country,” Fulmer said. “Because we’re such a young and building group, it’s made an impact on our football program. This team needs opportunities to develop, to work on the field, relationships, the culture in the locker room. All of those things that come with more maturity, more experience from our players.”
An opportunity could present itself this week as Tennessee plays host to No. 6 Florida at Neyland Stadium. The Vols and Gators will kickoff at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS.