Even if he misses a bowl game, Vols fans have to feel like they're in the right hands with Jeremy Pruitt
They don’t hand out grades or gold stars for first-year coaches.
If they did, Jeremy Pruitt — the former kindergarten teacher — would be getting some extremely high marks.
That was an easy conclusion to come to after Tennessee trucked No. 11 Kentucky on Saturday. It marked the second time this season that the Vols beat a ranked foe. Before this year, the Vols hadn’t had a win against a ranked SEC opponent since the Hail Mary against Georgia in 2016, when Butch Jones got Tennessee into the top 10 in the Associated Press poll.
That 8-win regular season, which was ultimately the beginning of the end for Jones’ time in Knoxville, feels nothing like this year.
At 5-5, Pruitt has already risen above expectations. He has done more than enough to show skeptical Tennessee fans that this lifetime coordinator knows a thing or two about running a program. Whether that was making the decision to reinstate disgruntled receiver Jauan Jennings or simply providing some cold hard truth in postgame press conferences, Pruitt has been everything that Phillip Fulmer hoped he could be when he ended the wildest Power 5 coaching search in recent memory (and maybe ever).
Bowl game or no bowl game, there will be no buyer’s remorse about Pruitt.
I realize that this is a popular opinion in Knoxville right now. I could probably walk into any random Knoxville establishment and ask the question “what are your thoughts on Pruitt?” and I guarantee there’d be nothing but praise.
This is worth bringing up now because I don’t think that sentiment should change if Tennessee stubs its toe in the final 2 games and misses the postseason. For what it’s worth, all signs point to that not happening.
But let’s just say that Pruitt is sitting there with 5 wins in December, which is just 1 better than the program had in last year’s meltdown. Some will probably back off the talk that Tennessee is on the up-and-up. They shouldn’t, but that’s what happens when a team misses the postseason because of a late losing streak.
That’s fine. What a perfect time to buy low on Pruitt’s stock. Does anything suggest that it won’t continue to soar?
The most encouraging thing about this year’s Tennessee team is actually not the simple fact that it beat a couple of ranked foes. It’s the response to bad games. Have the Vols had 2 bad games in a row this season? I’d argue they haven’t.
When they looked like a complete disaster against Florida, how did the respond? At Georgia, they were within 12 points with 5 minutes left. The Vols’ response was so good that it got the stoic Pruitt emotional in the postgame presser.
That wasn’t Jones saying his underperforming team has 5-star hearts. That was as real as it gets:
— Luke Slabaugh (@LukeSlabaugh) September 29, 2018
It would have been one thing if Tennessee went out and delivered a Florida-like performance the following game. That didn’t happen. At all. Instead, the Vols went into Jordan-Hare and beat Auburn. It confirmed what Pruitt saw in his team against Georgia.
Sure, the consistency hasn’t always been there for 60 minutes. The fact that Tennessee couldn’t score a post-first quarter point against Charlotte wasn’t ideal, and losing a late lead at South Carolina stung.
But if you’re a Tennessee fan and you’re not encouraged by the strides the program has made in 2018, I encourage you to get with the times.
A year ago, there might not have been a bigger laughingstock in the Power 5. That’s on and off the field.
Nobody is laughing at Tennessee now. Veteran coaches like Gus Malzahn and Mark Stoops are probably still wondering how they were totally out-coached by Pruitt. They’re probably confused as to how Tennessee, with all of its issues on the offensive line, controlled the line of scrimmage and put up points against elite front sevens.
That’s another thing that I’m not sure Pruitt gets enough credit for. The hiring of Tyson Helton after missing out on Tee Martin looks awfully smart now. When it was announced that the former USC quarterbacks coach was suddenly a 7-figure offensive coordinator, it was fair to question why Pruitt made such a rich investment in someone who was relatively unproven. Under Helton’s guidance, Jarrett Guarantano has transformed into one of the conference’s better quarterbacks. Suddenly, the future with Guarantano looks bright.
The same is true of Pruitt. After Saturday’s win, he’s now firmly in the SEC Coach of the Year discussion. Pruitt was asked about that during an appearance on “The Paul Finebaum Show” on Monday. As he has throughout his first season, Pruitt had the right thing to say.
“I can tell you I’ve not played one down. It takes more than one person every week,” Pruitt responded. “We have a fantastic staff, a great support staff, good administration. We have everything we need here to have success. Our players are buying into what we are trying to get done and create the right habits on the practice field.”
Pruitt is right. He hasn’t played a down, and all the surrounding factors he gave praise to deserve said praise.
But whether he wants to admit it or not, it starts with the head coach. We’ve seen what that looks like when the head coach fails to roll with the punches. Now, we’re seeing one who does know how to do that.
Tennessee can play in a bowl game or it can not play in a bowl game, and it won’t change my belief that Pruitt aced his Year 1 test. Give him 5 gold stars.
Actually, don’t. Nothing good can come of that.