What Do We Make of Pruitt and Fourth Down?

What Do We Make of Pruitt and Fourth Down?

In a sea of sound bites this week, I thought this one was interesting:

We’ve talked a lot about Pruitt’s nature as it relates to the offense, especially because the Vols ran fewer plays than any team in college football last season. Does he naturally lack aggression? Was he trying to protect a vulnerable defense? And we wondered last week, before Jarrett Guarantano struggled so mightily against BYU, if Pruitt could adapt that kind of philosophy and green light an offense that scored a bunch of points if the defense truly couldn’t stop anyone.

There are fewer questions about the defense and more about the offense after the loss to BYU. But Pruitt’s response about fourth down was noteworthy, especially because the numbers already show a significant change in that department.

The Vols have gone for it five times, which is tied for 14th-most in college football (stats via SportSource Analytics). Your eyes immediately jump to the fact that Tennessee is just 1-for-5 on those conversions, and rightfully so. But big picture, I think five tries in two games is more significant…especially because Tennessee only went for it on fourth down 11 times last year.

That ranked 126th in college football; among teams that missed a bowl game, only Maryland had fewer attempts last season. In 2018 Tennessee came out of this particular gate fast: 2-of-3 on fourth down against West Virginia, successful conversions against ETSU and UTEP, and an 0-for-2 as part of a hyper-aggressive gameplan against the Gators. The Vols also went 0-for-2 against South Carolina on their final two drives…then didn’t try it again the rest of the year.

We saw a conservative nature on fourth down for the entire Butch Jones tenure:

Year4th Down AttRankPer Game

The last consistently aggressive coach on fourth down was Lane Kiffin, who tried one in every game except the blowout win over Georgia. It doesn’t always work: the Vols were denied twice in a frustrating loss to UCLA. And when it does, it doesn’t guarantee victory: the Vols went 5-for-5 combined in narrow losses to Auburn and Alabama. But the willingness to go is something we never saw with Jones, and only saw as a reaction to Dooley’s least competitive team with an injury-riddled offense in 2011. Seventeen of those 28 attempts that season came in games featuring Matt Simms or Justin Worley at quarterback.

I like Pruitt’s quote, and I like the idea. Football coaches find forgiveness much faster for sins of aggression than the other way around. Had the Vols trotted out Cimaglia (and he continued to be automatic) on 4th-and-1 at the BYU 30 with 4:15 to go instead of trying Josh Palmer on the end around, Tennessee leads 19-13 and now BYU needs two hail maries instead of one.

And I’ve heard zero people make that point.

Call it confidence or aggression, but it tends to be rewarded over time. We’re especially appreciative of it after the previous administration courted close games every year. I’m hopeful Pruitt continues down this path, especially because it would represent doing something different. It’s one thing to say you’re learning, it’s another to demonstrate it.

You also can’t be aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. The Vols still struggle to run the ball in short yardage situations after being last by a mile in that stat last season. In two games, when running on 3rd-and-1-3 and 4th down, the Vols have nine carries for 24 yards. The 2.67 average is better. But those nine carries have still only produced five first downs. The Vols can be both smart and aggressive in their play-calling; again, that’s why I don’t hate the end-around, because at least it wasn’t another stuffed attempt into the center of the pile.

The larger issue everyone is invested in is building the mindset Pruitt references. Coach like you believe in your players, and it’s easier for them to believe in themselves. Belief is hard to come by after two games in Knoxville. But in the big picture, the fourth down mindset represents a hopeful shift in Pruitt’s philosophy, and will hopefully lead to a young team and a young coach continuing to grow in the right direction.

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Gavin Driskill
Gavin Driskill

The end around and the earlier failed 4th and 1 feel like classic “process vs. results” conundrums.

I’m all for going for it on 4th and 1 in most situations as, in a vacuum, I believe that to be the points maximizing play. It’s the right process.

But, if you kick 2 field goals and are up 22-13, the late deep pass doesn’t matter. And that’s what people are going to harp on right now.


I think we might see Pruitt get more conservative from here on out. You’ve got to figure he thinks about the chances that he might make it on a 4th down, and he’s operating with a lot of positivity early in the season. However, if we continue to have offensive problems, he might not take the risk because it doesn’t seem worth it, not as a 4th down philosophy, but as a practical matter of trying to win football games.