After a late-game collapse made a close Georgia loss a virtual runaway a couple of weeks ago, Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt nearly was moved to tears talking about how much better his guys were getting when talking in the postgame press conference.
Perhaps expecting a little more emotion from Pruitt, the SEC Network crew caught up with the first-year Vols front man after Saturday’s resounding 30-24 signature victory over Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But instead of getting misty-eyed, Pruitt talked about how much better his players were getting. He then took the opportunity on regional television to complain a little about Tennessee’s inability to finish games, referring to the Tigers’ late touchdown that allowed them to kick a potentially worrisome onsides kick. Afterward, in his coach’s show with Bob Kesling, he mentioned every assistant coach by name and talked about the unselfishness of some of his players to play out-of-position because of depth issues.
All three responses were vintage Pruitt.
On a week where negativity could reign against UGA, Pruitt stood up for his guys. After the Vols could trumpet so much happiness following what obviously was a huge win, Pruitt kept things grounded.
The buttons he’s pushing are working. In today’s Sunday Best — a column designed to point out the positives from the prior day’s game — there are tons of things to discuss. But it all boils down to one thing: the Vols are responding to Pruitt’s teaching methods, and the confidence they’re finally getting in themselves is showing on the field. Saturday, for the first time in 12 tries against a league foe, it showed up in the win column.
Improvement is something we’ve not seen much of over the tenures of Butch Jones and Derek Dooley before him. But Saturday was a start. Now, it’s just a matter of whether the Vols can capitalize. They’ve flipped the script on the season’s possibilities — a bowl game no longer is out of the question — but can they finish?
Remember, Jones led Tennessee to a win over a ranked South Carolina team at Neyland Stadium coming off a bye week in his first year as a head coach. UT couldn’t parlay that into a postseason appearance, losing the season-ender to Vanderbilt.
Pruitt knows the margin for error for this team is razor thin, so the teaching moments are vital.
So are the responding moments, and we finally got one of those Saturday, trumping a reeling Auburn team. Tennessee got AU at the right time, and, guess what? The Vols took advantage of it, erasing a halftime deficit against a team that was favored by double-digits.
Now that we’ve discussed the overarching theme of Sunday’s Best, let’s be a little more specific about some of the stuff that went right.
1. Jarrett Guarantano and the Incredible Leaping Vols
It’s been a long, hard road for redshirt sophomore Guarantano, going from highly regarded recruit to an ugly first few games as a starting quarterback a season ago to getting mauled this year and continuing to stand strong in the pocket.
All the while, he’s learned, he’s developed and he’s improved.
Saturday, we saw the fruit in a 21-of-32 performance for 328 yards and two touchdowns. Equally as important, he didn’t have a turnover. As a sub-bullet to this bullet, he also led UT to 10-of-19 in third-down conversions, and he had multiple strategically-placed balls downfield to his dynamic receiving corps.
They made him look good by catching them, too.
Tennessee’s most talented players are its receivers, and they dominated Auburn’s secondary in the win. Josh Palmer had three catches for 84 yards, Jauan Jennings awoke from his season-long slumber to finish with five grabs for 71 yards, and Marquez Callaway had two grabs for 55 yards. After vowing to try to get running back Ty Chandler more touches, it happened Saturday, as he had five grabs for 62 yards, including a big 42-yard touchdown strike.
It was a banner day for Guarantano, who has taken a lot of flak from Vols fans. Yet here he is, improving, learning, developing. Saturday, he was dominating.
2. Extra! Extra!
Not only did the Vols play a spotless, turnover-free game, they also wound up with three takeaways of their own. They needed every single one of them, too.
Bryce Thompson and Jonathan Kongbo grabbed interceptions — though on Kongbo’s, UT offensive coordinator Tyson Helton struggled with his play-calling and the Vols were forced to punt three plays later. Needing that game-changing play, though, Tennessee’s defense got it.
Moments after taking a stunning 20-17 lead to momentarily quiet the Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd, Tennessee pressured Jarrett Stidham, who fumbled the ball. After a scrum deep in AU territory, the ball squirted free from underneath a Tigers player into the hands of Tennessee freshman cornerback Alontae Taylor who wound up with an 8-yard touchdown.
The massive turnover made it 27-17, and that gave the Vols some breathing room.
Prior to the pair of picks, Tennessee was 106th nationally with just two interceptions this season, and the opportunistic plays had been lacking. There are still defensive issues with missed tackles and blown coverages, but you can cover a lot of that up with momentum-shifting plays, and that’s what the Vols did against Auburn.
3. Second-Half Response
The 448 Auburn yards you see in the box score isn’t pretty; that’s still too much [usually] to win. But you’ve got to give the Vols credit for some big-time halftime adjustments by Pruitt, defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer and Co.
Give the Vols credit for executing them, too.
The Tigers were shut out after the break until their final drive, which made things interesting as they quickly gashed Tennessee with some big passing plays. It was a disappointing finish to an incredible defensive performance after halftime, and Pruitt didn’t let his guys skate on that, either.
Still, there are reasons to be excited about the way Tennessee looks on that side of the ball, overall. Hopefully, Jonathan Kongbo is OK because he was playing at a high level Saturday against the Tigers before going down with an injury. Alexis Johnson is UT’s most disruptive defender so far this season, and while the Vols wish he had another year, the senior’s development is encouraging.
The defensive front got after Stidham, forcing multiple mistakes. When they had to bow up and get off the field, they did on a couple of vitally important occasions, notably forcing the Tigers into a 54-yard missed field goal in a drive that could have shifted momentum.
Injuries and a lack of speed are big concerns for UT on that side of the ball, but the Vols are playing with heart, they’re making plays and they’re in position to make others. They’ve just got to do a much better job tackling. If that happens, this can close and be as surprising of a unit as John Jancek’s group wound up being in 2015.
4. You Get An Improvement! You Get An Improvement!
It’s all over the field, and that is encouraging.
We talked about Kongbo and Johnson, two guys who nobody thought much of entering this season. Instead, both are making major impacts, and that bodes well for the future of this defense, even though they’ll be graduating. It means kids are responding, and we’re seeing that, too.
Thompson and Taylor look like they’ll be manning the secondary for years to come, and Trevon Flowers was improving, too, before breaking his collarbone in practice last week.
Guarantano, Ty Chandler, Will Ignont, Quart’e Sapp, all are getting better. Saturday saw Nathan Niehaus plugged in at guard for an injured Jahmir Johnson, and he held his own against a vaunted Auburn front. Josh Palmer is playing confident football, and he’s making plays. Jennings is finally healthy and playing like he’s got that “dawg” in him again.
This team is beginning to take on a mentality, beginning to establish a hard-nosed mentality. Can it continue, though?
It’s a huge question that remains to be answered. There is still much football to be played, and the Vols need to split the games against South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt to get bowl-eligible. Honestly, it still probably shouldn’t be expected.
But it’s at least attainable. Saturday made that possible.
This team and this program are heading in the right direction, and Pruitt continues to press all the right buttons, even though he’s still learning how to call plays within the framework of a game, still learning how to handle internal situations, still learning how to balance practices, film study, rotations, adjustments.
The Vols are learning how to win games, and Pruitt and Co. are learning how to run their brand new program.
Saturday was progress for all in a huge, huge win.