The day after: Reassessing Jeremy Pruitt as Tennessee's football coach

Tennessee’s 40-14 loss to West Virginia in Saturday’s season-opener wasn’t exactly the debut of the Jeremy Pruitt era that UT fans had hoped for. After a 90-minute lightning delay, the Mountaineers turned a 13-7 halftime lead into a four-touchdown rout that underscored just how far the Vols have to go to be competitive in the SEC.

There’s one immediate takeaway from Saturday’s loss: you can’t judge a coach’s worth by a single game, no matter how ugly the loss was. If you could, Nick Saban would’ve never won five national championships at Alabama — because he wouldn’t have been the Crimson Tide’s coach beyond year one.

Remember, Saban lost to Louisiana-Monroe (21-14) back in 2007, his debut season in Tuscaloosa. It goes without saying that West Virginia is supremely talented now compared to Louisiana-Monroe then, and it’s probably also fair to say that 2007 Alabama had more talent than 2018 Tennessee. And that loss to Louisiana-Monroe wasn’t Saban’s first…it was a November loss, towards the tail-end of the season.

So, no, Volnation.com, you can’t determine whether a coach will or will not succeed after just one game. I scanned through some of the posts on the popular fan site this morning and found myself face-palming more than once. What an exercise in futility! A plurality of those folks are ready to write off Pruitt and move on to the next option.

With that said, I don’t think it’s unfair to admit that there were some red flags in Saturday’s loss to the Mountaineers.

In the days leading up to Saturday’s game, I said that I felt that Tennessee would cover the spread (-10) against the Mountaineers, but I was mostly just excited to see what the Vols looked like with a real football coach.

And that’s the most disappointing part to me: After nine months with its new coach, Tennessee didn’t look much different than it looked with its old coach, Butch Jones. I didn’t need to see UT beat West Virginia; I didn’t even necessarily need to see the game kept close. We knew Tennessee had gaping holes at key position areas, we knew the secondary was going to be a problem against the Mountaineers’ explosive offensive attack.

But I wanted to see improvements. I wanted to see a team that looked better prepared after spring and fall with a new coaching staff. And if I’m being completely honest, it was a little disheartening not to see that improvement.

That’s not necessarily true across the board. Tennessee’s offense showed flashes of promise, just without consistency. Jarrett Guarantano looked like a different quarterback, and in a good way. Tim Jordan showed lots of potential. And once the offensive line found their sea legs, pass protection was much better than it was last year.

On the flip side, Tennessee still managed only 14 points against a West Virginia defense that ranked 106th in the nation last year, and the Vols’ 301 yards of offense ranked 92nd in the nation after the first week of the college football season — tied with Old Dominion and just ahead of Middle Tennessee State. UT struggled to run the football without a lead blocker, and that was particularly true on running plays to the right side. Against a typical SEC defense — think Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Auburn and South Carolina — the offensive line’s “improvement” through the final three quarters of Saturday’s game would not have been nearly as impressive.

On the defensive side of the ball, we’re being reminded that football really is all about Jimmys and Joes. It was head-scratching that Bob Shoop’s defenses with James Franklin at Vanderbilt and Penn State were as good as they were, then his two Tennessee defenses were as bad as they were.

But while Jeremy Pruitt — who won national championships as a defensive coordinator at Florida State and Alabama, and who had a very good defense at Georgia — struggled to find a way to stop Will Grier and the Mountaineers on Saturday, Shoop was relaxing after his Mississippi State defense recorded 16 tackles for loss during Friday’s game against Stephen F. Austin.

In other words, blame Butch Jones. Maybe his players were overrated by the prep recruiting services, or maybe they weren’t developed well once they got on campus, but clearly Tennessee doesn’t currently have the talent on the defensive side of the ball to compete at an SEC level. Players who were very highly regarded coming out of high school (think Jonathan Kongbo) just aren’t having an impact.

Foolishly, I had hoped that Pruitt — who was an excellent defensive coordinator at three different Southern college football powerhouses, and who was a very good position coach before that — would be able to make a difference in nine months as Tennessee’s head coach. He wasn’t. Maybe — maybe — if we’re stretching for positives we can say that Tennessee was better at stopping the run on Saturday than much of last season. But that’s a big maybe, and we’ll find out more in the coming weeks against SEC schools that put more attention and detail into their run game.

Does that mean Pruitt can’t succeed as Tennessee’s head coach? No. It just means that UT fans are going to have to be very, very patient.

And they’re going to have to hope that Pruitt can recruit at a high level.

Pruitt’s first few months on the job were not especially impressive, from a recruiting standpoint, but a coach’s first recruiting class, which is almost always an abbreviated one, usually aren’t. So far, his first full recruiting class, which will sign in February, is ranked No. 8 in the nation, according to Rivals.com. That’s promising, but it remains to be seen whether he can hold it together if Tennessee is in for a type of season that sees the Vols go 5-7 or 4-8 or — dare we even consider the possibility? — 3-9.

That, to me, is the biggest takeaway from Saturday’s game. I said earlier in the week that nothing between the extremes of 4-8 and 8-4 would surprise me for Tennessee this season, and 4-8 is more likely than 8-4. After Saturday’s game, I’m adjusting the floor downward to 3-9, because I don’t think Tennessee can win a conference game without some significant improvements. Before Saturdays game, I was confident that Tennessee would go bowling this season. Now I’m merely hopeful that the Vols can get to 6-6 and obtain bowl eligibility.

When it became obvious one year ago that Butch Jones would not survive the 2017 season as Tennessee’s football coach, I expected the Vols to be able to land a proven winner, someone who was experienced as a head coach and was considered a high-reward, low-risk hire.

After things turned out as they did, I said I refused to buy in to Pruitt the way I had bought in to Derek Dooley and Butch Jones until I saw results on the field. Dooley won me over with his introductory press conference but turned out to be a mediocre gameday coach and a terrible recruiter. Jones won me over with his attention to detail and his approach but turned out to be a decent recruiter who was a terrible gameday coach. With Pruitt, I wasn’t making the mistake of buying in until I saw those results on the field. After all, the 44-year-old was a fine coordinator and position coach, but it’s an entirely different game when you’re the CEO of the program, and I wasn’t sure that his lack of experience would serve him well. Nor was I convinced that Phillip Fulmer hired Pruitt for anything other than selfish motivations.

Saturday’s game didn’t vindicate any of those concerns about Pruitt, but it did convince me that I was right to take a wait-and-see approach and that I was probably a little too quick to sip the orange kool-aid in early August, when I convinced myself that Pruitt was going to immediately right the ship.

None of that has convinced me that Pruitt can’t get the job done, but it’s certainly going to take longer to find out definitively if he can than most of us had hoped.


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