Things obviously didn’t go as planned for Jeremy Pruitt and company to start the season.
Many Tennessee fans eagerly awaited the West Virginia game to see what type of team Pruitt and his staff would field in their first season on Rocky Top only to be picked apart by Will Grier and Dana Holgorsen’s offense. Then came a much-anticipated Florida game in Neyland Stadium that featured the biggest meltdown of the season for this young Vols team.
Flash forward several weeks and it appears those struggles early on during the season made this team stronger as the coaches have instilled in them the mindset and daily habits necessary to find success on the field on Saturdays.
The coaches, however, can only do so much to motivate the players. Much of that has to come from the players themselves, in particular, the senior leadership on the roster.
That’s something Pruitt acknowledged on Wednesday during his post-practice media availability. The Tennessee coach noted the importance of finishing strong for the senior class that’s done everything they can this season to turn things around.
“I just talked to our team about it, we have 13 seniors on our football team that, really since we’ve been here, have tried to do everything that we’ve asked them to do. They’ve been really good leaders,” Pruitt said. “A lot of them have sacrificed, they’ve moved around different positions, but they really bought in to the team.
“I think they represent what the University of Tennessee is all about. I know it’s their last game in Neyland and I know they’re excited about the opportunity to play one more time there. We talked a little bit about that and I think our kids are excited for them.”
As for the level of buy-in Pruitt has seen from these seniors, the first-year coach noted that the work they put in has laid the foundation for what is to come for Tennessee football in the future. That’s a pitch all first-year coaches can make but not all players buy into around the country.
“I think everybody in our program was hungry and from the first day we got here, really led by our senior group, our guys have really bought in to what we’re trying to get done,” Pruitt continued. “It’s not been easy. We’re a long way from being where we want to be, but we are making small steps and we’ve done it the entire year.
“Sometimes it hadn’t showed on Saturdays, but if we keep working hard in practice and in the classroom, preparing the right way, I think we’ll see progress. I think these guys have done a really good job up to this point doing it the way we ask them to do it and we’ve got a couple of weeks left here that we need to finish and do it the right way.”
Tennessee plans to honor 13 seniors before the Missouri game. Those 13 players, along with their hometowns, are listed below:
• DB Micah Abernathy – Atlanta, Ga.
• DL Paul Bain – Powder Springs, Ga.
• LB Dillon Bates – Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
• QB Keller Chryst – Charlotte, N.C.
• WR Malik Elion – Memphis, Tenn.
• DB D.J. Henderson – Lyman, S.C.
• DL Alexis Johnson Jr. – Atlanta, Ga.
• DB Todd Kelly Jr. – Knoxville, Tenn.
• OLB Jonathan Kongbo – Surrey, B.C.
• RB Madre London – Little Rock, Ark.
• LS Jesse Medford – Burlington, N.C.
• DE Kyle Phillips – Nashville, Tenn.
• DL Shy Tuttle – Midway, N.C.