Why we saw the blueprint of what a successful Jeremy Pruitt team would look like
All Tennessee has to do in order to be a successful program under Jeremy Pruitt is replicate exactly what we saw Saturday against Mississippi State.
Simple enough, right?
I say that tongue-in-cheek because as Vols fans know, it took until Week 7 for Pruitt’s squad to play up to that standard against an FBS opponent. In all likelihood, a blowout loss to Alabama this weekend will wash away many of the good vibes from one of Tennessee’s best performances in the past 3 years (strange but true). Tennessee will have to endure another year of Butch Jones lighting up a victory cigar in crimson gear and continue to wonder where all of this is leading.
Well, if it’s heading in the direction we saw this past Saturday, that’s a good thing regardless of if 2019 ends with a bowl berth. My guess is it won’t.
But playing defense and winning ugly like that was indeed a repeatable, identity-building style that Tennessee can adopt beyond 2019.
If I had to pick a word to describe Mississippi State’s offense Saturday, I’d go with a simple one — “confused.” Everything Pruitt and Co. drew up made Joe Moorhead’s offense look out of sorts.
Sometimes, that was a simple stunt at the line of scrimmage. On the first 3rd down of the game, Tennessee had 5 defenders at the line, presenting the look of pressure. However, only 3 rushed Tommy Stevens while 1 dropped into coverage and another spied the MSU quarterback.
So why did it work? While Stevens was trying to dissect that, Pruitt sent Bryce Thompson on a cornerback blitz at Stevens’ blindside. MSU running back Kylin Hill was a split second late picking him up and barely managed to get a hand on him. Thompson got home — as did Darrell Taylor rushing off the front-side edge — and Stevens went down. Ergo, 4th down and a punt from MSU’s end zone.
In the middle of the second quarter with Tennessee leading 7-0, Pruitt sent Thompson again … along with 5 other rushers. Stevens was so confused by the pressure that instead of hitting the open checkdown to Hill, he tried stepping up in the pocket to avoid the untouched Thompson.
Yeah, it didn’t work out. This resulted in another sack:
But it wasn’t just confusion from a pass-rushing standpoint that made the difference. Pruitt baited both MSU quarterbacks into throwing into double coverage seemingly without them even knowing it.
Tennessee had 3 interceptions, and it probably should have had more.
After Garrett Shrader came in and MSU was in somewhat obvious passing situations early in the 4th quarter, Pruitt took advantage of a true freshman trying to get all the points back with one play. Again, the Vols gave MSU the open checkdown. But Shrader, like many true freshmen would be in that spot, was fixated on his outside receiver going deep with what he hoped was single coverage. He didn’t process that Tennessee dropped 6 defenders into coverage. Shrader didn’t bother to look off Tennessee safety Nigel Warrior, who had over-the-top coverage. Warrior made an easy pass breakup on the floated pass to the middle of the field.
The play never had a chance.
But go back to how Tennessee lined up — in its base 4-3 defense with cornerbacks playing press coverage — and that’s why Shrader thought he’d roll the dice on hopefully getting single coverage.
This is all about overwhelming a quarterback who doesn’t have many reps. It completely took away MSU’s passing game.
And I suppose I buried the lede by not mentioning earlier that the Vols did a fantastic job up front of getting off blocks and giving Hill nowhere to run. That was what set up such favorable down-and-distances for Pruitt to get tricky with the MSU offense. Obviously that’s something that will be a week-to-week deal for Tennessee. It helps when you actually have your alignment figured out (unlike that awful sequence against Georgia State in the opener).
Here’s why what the Vols did was sustainable. In a division and a league loaded with young quarterbacks now, there are going to be more chances than ever for Pruitt’s disguised pressures and coverages to work. Some weeks, he’ll face a Tua Tagovailoa. But the biggest knock on Tagovailoa last year was that he didn’t take what defenses gave him and that he tried to force the home run play when it wasn’t there. He’s not doing that anymore, but the point remains.
Saturday was the Tennessee defense that we expected to see for much of 2019. It was opportunistic, relentless and just plain smart. There weren’t coverage breakdowns like at the end of regulation against BYU. There weren’t wide-open receivers streaking down the middle of the field and gap assignments were executed in defending the run.
When you see those things work, it looks so simple. Like, why can’t Pruitt’s unit, which now has talent and experience at every level, do that each week? I expect to see that much, much more in the latter half of the season.
On Saturday, it didn’t matter that Tennessee wasn’t clicking on all cylinders on offense. Despite that rich contract to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, the Vols aren’t likely to become an offensive juggernaut in the near future. This is still Pruitt’s team with a defensive foundation. It’s not a coincidence that in the 3 best games of the Pruitt era (2018 at Auburn, 2018 vs. Kentucky and vs. MSU on Saturday), Tennessee averaged 24.7 points. On most days in this modern era of high-flying offenses, that’s not good enough.
Saturday’s performance was a reminder that the Vols have the tools to be good enough on a given day. Now it’s time to see that effort translate against a team like Alabama, and sustain it the rest of the season regardless of what the final score indicates this weekend.
It took 7 weeks, but dare I say, the Vols might just have themselves an identity.