KNOXVILLE – Thoughts of last year are so last week for Tennessee’s football team.
The sweat had barely dried following last Saturday’s 17-13 victory Kentucky over Lexington, Ky., when Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt reminded the players that they had reached the same juncture as last season. Those Vols proceeded to plunge off a cliff, losing to Missouri and Vanderbilt.
“That’s the first thing Coach Pruitt said to us in the locker room,” outside linebacker Darrell Taylor after last Saturday’s hard-fought victory. “He said, ‘Last year we were 5-5 around this time, and we didn’t finish.’ So our biggest thing is finishing this season off the right way.”
And with that these 5-5 Vols were finished with the motivational theme. Or so it seemed, judging by Wednesday’s media availability with Pruitt and players. The team is in the midst of an off week. They return to action next Saturday at Missouri, needing just one victory in the final two games to become bowl eligible.
Pruitt resisted comparing this season to the last one, saying these Vols constitute “a totally new team.”
“It’s not the same individuals,” he said. “There are some that are the same but as a whole it is different.”
When Taylor was asked about last season in terms of how it might inform the do-over, he dismissed it like ancient history
“We’re not really worrying about last year,” he said. “We can’t really think about it and it is in the past.”
Offensive center Brandon Kennedy was inclined to restrict his history lessons to 2019.
“We take what we’ve learned this year and build on it,” he said.
Motivational messages of these type often turn like a weather vane in the wind. The prevailing theme on Wednesday was “being where our feet are.” In other words, stay in the moment and don’t get ahead of yourself. Pruitt referenced the notion and offensive lineman K’Rojhn Calbert echoed it almost verbatim.
Any of these thoughts – no matter how whiplash-inducing they might seem – are best interpreted in gauging the attentiveness and belief the players have in what the coaches are conveying. History, ancient or otherwise, has affirmed the importance of such synergy.
In this case, UT’s 1-4 start apparently didn’t foster corrosive doubt. Now the players are responsive enough to quickly shift from last season back to where their feet are.
“It definitely shows we’re buying everything that’s being preached,” wide receiver Jauan Jennings said. “… It shows the players actually care about what (Pruitt’s) saying. It’s real.”
In other news:
– UT offensive lineman Trey Smith is one of 20 semifinals for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year, an honor named after the former Tennessee tight end.
The award’s selection is based on the student-athlete’s record of courage, integrity and sportsmanship, on and off the field.
– Linebacker Daniel Bituli, who had 19 tackles against Kentucky, was named SEC defensive player of the week for the second time in three weeks.
About racking up the tackles, Bituli said: “I’m a linebacker. That’s what I’m here for. That’s what I’m made for.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at email@example.com.