Jeremy Pruitt was hired by Tennessee to get the Volunteers back on top of the SEC East. Through four games, his tenure has been a nightmare in Knoxville.
No rational Tennessee fan expected Jeremy Pruitt to immediately transform the Volunteers program into a national title contender. It was always going to take time to fix Butch Jones’ mess. Unfortunately, Pruitt’s program has shown zero signs of progress through the first four games of his tenure.
There’s still time for Pruitt to turn things around, but most coaches who are going to ultimately find success with their new schools give their fans a reason to dream right away. It’s not always a surprising upset victory. Frequently it’s just a new strategic identity for the program that looks like a potential way forward. Pruitt’s done nothing in his 2-2 start.
The former Alabama assistant got a pass in the opener when Tennessee lost 40-14 to a good West Virginia team in Charlotte. After all, it was his first game as a head coach. A lot of Volunteer fans would have liked to see the game stay closer than its final margin, but no one was going to get too worked up over a big loss to an out of conference foe in the opener.
The next week Tennessee waltzed to an easy 59-3 victory over East Tennessee State. It was a classic feel good win for an SEC program over a completely overmatched opponent. The Buccaneers were no match for Tennessee anywhere on the field. The win was good for morale in Knoxville, but it didn’t tell us anything important about the program.
Week 3 is where, in hindsight, signs of real trouble began. The 24-0 win over UTEP was pretty comfortable, but it’s a game Tennessee should have really dominated. The Miners are 0-4 currently with losses to Northern Arizona, UNLV and New Mexico State. In particular, the Rebels put up 52 against them. The fact that Pruitt’s offense sputtered against UTEP should have been a clue that real progress wasn’t being made.
Then came last week’s home debacle against Florida. The Volunteers entered the game as a slight underdog, but were thoroughly outclassed by the Gators. A pretty mediocre Florida team handed Tennessee one of their worst home defeats ever by a 47-21 score. There was nothing subtle about the negativity coming out of the loss to Dan Mullen’s team.
The lack of positivity about Pruitt has more to do with the way his team has looked. He arrived in Knoxville with the reputation of a coach who could, at the very least, help instill some discipline around the program. Perhaps he’s done that off the field, but there’s no evidence of eliminating mistakes on the field. Turning the ball over six times against Florida was inexcusable. Not even Jones or Derek Dooley had managed that feat.
The real question here is what Tennessee fans have to be excited about at the moment. The answer is nothing. There’s nothing about Pruitt’s scheme on either side of the football that looks innovative. On offense he wants to run the football from routine formations. On defense he wants to play solid football and create turnovers. Nothing about Pruitt’s approach to the game is going to allow his team to outscheme opponents.
In the absence of a tactical advantage, fans would like to place their hopes on young talent inside the program. There aren’t a lot of underclassmen who look destined for the NFL on Pruitt’s roster. Previous coaches could always point to a few surefire NFL prospects as reasons for optimism. Pruitt can’t point to young players with that kind of talent. His best players on defense are seniors. There may not be anyone on the offensive side of the football who’s a lock to play on Sundays. Trey Smith might get their if he can get healthy, but fans don’t fill the stands to watch All-SEC left tackles.
The reality is that 2018 is a lost year for Pruitt and the Vols. They don’t have the talent, scheme or schedule to climb back into a race for bowl contention or even respectability. Instead, Pruitt needs to focus on finding some solid reasons for optimism heading into 2019. He hasn’t given the fan base anything to be excited about through four games. Pruitt’s tenure to date has been a complete and utter failure.