A Last Look at West Virginia Before Looking Ahead

I blame myself for yesterday.

Not Tennessee’s loss to West Virginia, but the way I felt after Tennessee lost to West Virginia.

A part of me — no matter how much I tried to be rational about the situation — thought all the awful shards of 2017 could be simply erased by good coaching.

In actuality, Jeremy Pruitt has never been a head coach. Tyson Helton has never had the reins to call plays on his own. Several of the Vols had never played a college game. And those who had played hadn’t been coached the way they’d hoped.

Still, I fell into a vortex of believing the offensive line had all of a sudden become a strength. I believed a talent uptick on the back side of the defense would produce enough athleticism to close the gap, even if there were mistakes. I believed some of the players who’d never come close to realizing their potential as pass-rushers — guys like Jonathan Kongbo and Darrell Taylor — would somehow all of a sudden be good.

Oh, me of much faith.

So it goes in the life of a Vols fan, where you build up so much hope that things will change, forgetting that you’ve got to run into a few trees if your eyes are on the forest. We plowed head-first into one on Saturday. The reality of the situation is Pruitt and his staff have to coach better than what they did yesterday, sure, but the stink of the Butch Jones era will still permeate the program for a while.

It would be very easy to chastise certain players, but Kongbo, Baylen Buchanan and Micah Abernathy [along with several others] are what they are. The bottom line is those guys probably know what they’re doing out there more than some of the other guys, but they just can’t do it at a high level. Then, if you insert some of the others [like Trevon Flowers and Bryce Thompson] they may be more athletic but they lose a step because they’re not technically ready or know exactly what they’re supposed to be.

Then you get what we saw yesterday: Receivers running rampant across the middle of the field, two steps beyond whoever is supposed to be guarding them. You see blitzes leaving us in man coverage and getting burned. When you can’t get any pressure on a Heisman Trophy frontrunner like Will Grier, he’s going to dissect you like a frog in science class.

You may say, “That’s Football 101. And the Vols failed.”

Here’s the thing, though. It isn’t 101. It’s like a freshman taking a 400-level class. They don’t have the foundation of the other things to succeed.

That’s where we are. On a positive note, things got better on offense. It’s true that Tennessee will play far better defenses than West Virginia, a team that didn’t hold an opponent to 14 points all season a year ago, which is troubling that Helton failed to exploit some of the things that materialized such as the toss outside that was gaining chunk yardage, and Callaway and Jauan Jennings running unimpeded and open 10 yards downfield.

But, still, Jarrett Guarantano looked better than he ever has, and he played within himself and at a moderately high level. It was a major steppingstone for a career, I thought, that still has three full seasons remaining. Tim Jordan may have been the least-discussed of the three Tennessee tailbacks who were supposed to get prominent carries, but he gained more than 100 yards in another major steppingstone for a career that also still has three remaining years.

Like it or not, this is what 2018 is going to be about: Finding playmakers in a sea of youth. It’s going to be about gaining trust in players who don’t have the luxury of being brought along slowly and about those players learning dependability and accountability. It’ll be the same as the year progresses and players such as J.J. Peterson and Cedric Tillman and Jeremy Banks and Jerome Carvin get those reps and learn those lessons.

You hope, along the way, the Vols find a way to six wins and bowl eligibility, but it’s more about building a program and getting Tennessee back to where it’s supposed to be that a quick-fix in ’18. That’s not to downplay the value of a good steppingstone [there’s that word again] season this year. The importance of a bowl game to recruiting and to selling a program to a fan base tired of waiting is massive.

If it happens.

If it doesn’t, we’re still stuck with hope. It’s a four-letter word, and it’s one we’re all sick of hearing. This isn’t a quick-fix, as much as we want it to be. Pruitt tried to infuse enough talent from other programs, junior colleges and freshmen to make up for what Jones left. We all saw yesterday that it’s not enough.

You may ask why it’s taken us so long. Other programs have gotten better quicker. I ask myself that question every day, fret over it, wonder about it, believe that this is some sort of penance our program is paying for whatever reason. I don’t have an answer. All I can think of is that those other programs didn’t hire Derek Dooley. They didn’t hire Butch Jones. In five years from now, we have to hope that we’re not adding, “And Jeremy Pruitt” to that list of misfits. We don’t know, yet. There’s no way to.

All we know is that we like what we hear. But I don’t think any of us liked what we saw yesterday. I expected that I’d see a better product on the field, and I choose to believe — at least until proven otherwise — that was my mistake. If we have the talent and not the coaching, we lose that hope. And as much as we hate that word right now, we need it. If we have the coaching and not yet enough talent, well, that’s better. It’s not good; but it’s better.

The next two weeks will give us some warm-and-fuzzies. They’re what we need, only because games against ETSU and UTEP will produce wins but they’ll produce good reps for the youngsters, confident reps for the youngsters. By the time Florida rolls around on September 22, the Vols either will be better, or we’ll have more reason for concern because they’re not.

This is no time for panic. To be honest, 2018 is no time for panic, even if it is a time to be concerned about the future of our program. We should be concerned, sure, but not because of anything that happened on the field against the Mountaineers, but because of the uncertainty of what’s going to happen under Pruitt. We need to see development, we need to see improvement, and we need to continue to see quality recruiting. If that happens, by the end of this year, we’ll have the basis for a program.

Jones never did that. Even though the recruiting was there, everything set up for one season and the depth behind that group of guys who left after 2016 had been gutted by his personal missteps and his inability to build the trust of his players. Let’s hope Pruitt doesn’t do that.

The biggest takeaways from yesterday? Pruitt will teach, teach, teach. But he didn’t rip, rip, rip. He accentuated the positives even in a loss. While that may be against what he is used to doing, it’s what the young guys need. He also took the blame, and while everything may not be his fault — heck, most of it may not be his fault — you don’t build the trust of your players by blaming your players.

Jones never learned that. Pruitt, it seems, already knows it. That doesn’t make him a better coach. It just makes him a more relatable person. We’ll know soon enough whether he’s got the coaching chops to go along with that positive takeaway.

Here’s why I’m disappointed: I thought I’d know the answer to that question yesterday, and I don’t. A 40-14 loss doesn’t instill confidence in anybody. I want to be encouraged by some of the things I saw, and I want to believe it was a step in the right direction, but it felt like just another difficult step.

It felt like a starting point of a long, long excursion back to respectability. The Vols know where they are and where they want to go. Whether they ultimately can get there is the hard part.

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