Tennessee fans may not want to hear this message from their head coach following a disastrous 1-3 start to the season but Jeremy Pruitt remains optimistic that his program continues to make take steps in the right direction.

While the records are similar from a season ago, the Vols were 2-2 (with wins over ETSU and UTEP and losses to West Virginia and Florida) at this time last season, many Tennessee fans believe the program has regressed on the field based on what they have seen in 2019.

That’s not a hard argument to make when you consider Jarrett Guaratano’s game has not taken the next step despite the hiring of offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and the vast majority of the skill talent on the team returning on Rocky Top.

So how can Pruitt even say this with a straight face? The Tennessee coach cites turnover margin for his team’s woes on the field.

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“It’s not hard to figure out. In the three games that we have lost, we had an opportunity to win two of them,” Pruitt said on Wednesday. “The first one we had five turnovers, whether it was three turnovers that we had or two turnovers on downs on fourth-and-one. And we only created one turnover. So, we are minus four in the turnover margin there. It’s hard to win that way. We probably left some plays out there on both sides of the ball.

“Our football team is 100 times better than it was this time last year. Our guys are working hard. We are stronger and more physical. But when it comes to success on winning the football game, you can’t turn the ball over and you have to create turnovers, and that is something that has hampered us in our three losses. Our guys are working hard and we’re getting better on the offensive front. Our tight ends are playing winning football. We have to get the ball to our skill players and be more consistent there.”

While the offense may be turning it over left and right, Pruitt’s defense isn’t causing enough turnovers when they take the field but at least they aren’t surrendering many explosive plays. The defensive-minded head coach pointed to that aspect of his team as another sign of the progress being made at Tennessee.

“Defensively, it’s unusual if you look at our defense, with what we call explosive plays – gains of 20 yards or more, 15-yard runs or 20-yard passes – and probably throughout our four games, I think we have given up 11 or 13. For a team that is 1-3, that is not a whole lot,” Pruitt said. “If you have looked at us, we have not given up big chunks, we’ve given up seven to 14-yard plays.

“What does that mean? That means we need to be a little stronger when we tackle and knock folks back. Maybe our coverage is not tight enough in some scenarios. We have created some negative plays. We have to develop a little more pass rush. When we rush, we are just four guys so that we don’t put so much stress on the back end. So, all those things we are looking at ways to improve.”