KNOXVILLE – Jeremy Pruitt began the week with the sounds of saltiness.
The Tennessee football coach’s opening comments during his weekly press conference centered on too many negative plays and too much pressure on the Vols quarterbacks. He went five sentences deep before any mention of anything positive. And he was reviewing a 23-point victory over a heretofore one-loss UAB team last Saturday.
A sure sign of progress is grousing about victories and the Vols (4-5, 2-3 SEC) certainly are making headway with three victories in their last four games before Saturday’s game at Kentucky (TV: SEC Network, 7:30 p.m.).
A natural reaction to such a turnaround is to review what’s happened and search for a Road to Damascus moment. Was there the football equivalent of a bright light and a conversion of biblical proportions?
Such a thought for sure would’ve incurred the wrath of Pruitt on Monday, or any day for that matter.
His take on Tennessee’s about face from a 1-4 start began with elementary school mathematics.
“We turned the football over,” he said. “We didn’t get enough turnovers. We didn’t play clean.”
The statistics support his contention. Tennessee was minus-six in turnovers during the first four losses and a plus-five in the victory over Chattanooga. Conversely the Vols are a plus-four overall in the past four games, highlighted by a plus-three margin last Saturday.
The math concept also applies to Tennessee’s lineup. For example, linebacker Daniel Bituli missed the first two games because of a knee injury while defensive back Bryce Thompson missed the first three because of disciplinary action.
Initially, Bituli’s return assuaged UT’s alignment issues on defense. He’s since progressed to the point of having a 15-tackle effort against South Carolina that included a blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown. The performance earned him SEC co-defensive player of the week honors.
Thompson took the SEC honor exclusively this week after a tying a school single-game record with three interceptions against UAB.
The return of impactful players like this is bound to result in progress.
The math theory has its limitations, however, when balancing the personnel additions with some subtractions. While Thompson has returned to the secondary fellow defensive back Trevon Flowers was lost for the season due to a fractured leg against Mississippi State on Oct. 12.
Furthermore, the offensive line, which struggled some against UAB, hasn’t had the same five-player starting alignment since the Florida game primarily because of injury.
Another explanation for UT’s progress is more collective in nature, rather than accounting for individuals and their acts. It’s centered around the daily work invested toward improvement.
On Tuesday, defensive lineman Matthew Butler echoed his coach in referencing his position group’s ongoing attention to details and striving to play clean football.
On the other side of the line, freshman offensive tackle Wanya Morris had an especially rough night on Saturday. His response, fellow lineman Trey Smith said, was to watch film with Smith, critique his play and apologize to his teammates.
“Wanya’s identifying his issues and we’re going in the film room together just so we can be more cohesive on the left side of the offensive line,” Smith said.
After a loss at Florida dropped Tennessee to 1-4, yours truly wondered in this column space whether the team’s execution breakdowns suggested a degree of disconnect between what Pruitt and his staff was teaching and the team’s play. I also wondered whether experience and maturity eventually might bridge the gap.
I’m not wondering as much anymore.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.