Pruitt accentuates positives in lopsided loss
CHARLOTTE — With Country Road still blasting in the bowels of Bank of America Stadium, Jeremy Pruitt walked into his first press conference as a head coach sullen but hardly defeated.
Pruitt’s Tennessee Vols were mollywopped 40-14 by No. 17 West Virginia in his first game as a head coach, as All-American quarterback Will Grier turned a one-score deficit at halftime into a blowout with four second-half touchdown passes.
But instead of lamenting a lack of talent or youth or practice time, Pruitt did something Tennessee’s previous head coach had such a hard time grasping.
Pruitt delicately balanced owning a humbling loss while also offering a big-picture perspective for the future. He was stoic yet genuine. After a training camp without any "aights," he let a couple slip out.
“We lost it. We’re 0-1. I’m not real happy about that. But hey, somebody is going to lose and unfortunately today it’s us,” Pruitt said, in his trademark Southern twang only with a softer and more reflective tone than usual.
“So we can wallow in it, or we can sit here and figure a way to make us better. I think that’s what our guys will try to do.”
Despite a different staff, scheme and expectations, Tennessee looked a lot like the team that went 0-8 in SEC play a year ago.
Opponent receivers ran open. The offensive line allowed too much penetration and the play-calling was inconsistent. Ultimately, the Vols were overwhelmed by a deluge of NFL throws by Grier, who carved them up for 429 yards and five touchdowns.
Tennessee’s new staff, who entered Saturday afternoon quietly confident, was no doubt served a reality check for where this program is … and how far it must climb from its current depths of despair. And yet, not all was lost in Week 1. No one likes silver linings, but for a program that won't be rebuilt in a day, Pruitt saw “lots of things” Tennessee did well in a 26-point loss.
He “wasn’t surprised” by tailback Tim Jordan, who had his first-career 100-yard rushing game. He thought his offensive line gelled as the game progressed and there was notable growth in quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. The Vols won the turnover battle. No doubt, the best moments of the blowout loss came during Tennessee’s 17-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that took nearly nine minutes off the clock.
It was a dream drive for Pruitt, concluding with his instant decision to go for it on 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard-line.
"We’re not here to run a sprint, we're here to run a marathon, and we're trying to build a culture," Pruitt said.
“We want to be an aggressive team that plays to win. If you can't get it in from there (at the 1), it don’t say a whole lot for you. We’re got to build our confidence and be more physical.”
While talent is a major issue, confidence and belief are clearly two of Pruitt’s principal challenges as Tennessee picks itself up from another throttling. The Vols mostly played hard Saturday, but after a stealing the momentum late in the second quarter, that same fight disappeared when the scoreboard changed quickly in the third.
At one point during the postgame presser, Pruitt said “I knew this would happen.” He was making a point about Tennessee’s young secondary, but he might as well have been talking about his entire team.
“But I also know in October they're going to be a lot better.”
Tennessee fans certainly hope that’s true.
The next three months are going to be full of growing pains for a program that’s going to have to scratch and claw just to reach a bowl game. Their coach certainly doesn’t seem deterred by the challenge, even if he was humbled a bit Saturday night.
“To me the most important thing is how your team plays because it tells you what kind of coach you are. Their team played better than our team today," Pruitt said.
"That’s on me.
"I got to get these guys to execute at a higher level. Where they believe in their self. I think we’ll do that. There’s lots of lessons for us to learn today, but the key to the drill is to learn those lessons and go apply it.”