ATHENS — Maybe Jeremy Pruitt has it under control now. Maybe he has gotten some counseling and has figured out another way to channel his anger and frustration. We’ll find out soon enough.
So far it has been only a kicked whiteboard and a mid-game player dismissal by Pruitt. Oh, and there was one facemask grab. That’s what we know about anyway. There are people up on Rocky Top who say there have been some other behind-the-scenes situations in which Pruitt has been “animated,” but nothing that would raise any eyebrows.
And that’s good. But the real test lies ahead for Pruitt as this transition season for Tennessee football continues.
The Vols (2-2, 0-1 SEC) are in the early stages of a midseason gauntlet. They just had their head handed to them by what was supposed to also be a rebuilding Florida team last Saturday, 47-21. Now they’re coming to Sanford Stadium to face the reloaded No. 2-ranked Georgia Bulldogs (4-0, 2-0). After a well-deserved bye next week, Tennessee will resume with road games at Auburn and South Carolina sandwiched around a home game against No. 1 Alabama.
The over-or-under on how many times Pruitt will blow his top between now and then is 30, or one per day. The key for Tennessee will be managing the magnitude of the eruptions.
— Mike Gillespie (@MikeABCColumbia) September 23, 2018
Jeremy Pruitt, you see, is a certified hot head. He’s a yeller and a screamer. He’s a facemask grabber. He’s a white-board kicker. When your team is winning, that’s called being intense and demanding. When it’s not, it’s just considered boorish and rude.
Pruitt has built such a reputation while winning big in college football. What we don’t know about Tennessee’s first-year coach is how he might react to losing big.
As a college assistant coach, Pruitt’s teams won 88 percent of their games (96-13). And all those wins came at a high level. The only schools Pruitt worked for before Tennessee are Alabama, Florida State and Georgia. The first two won national championships. The Bulldogs obviously didn’t, but they won 20 games Pruitt’s two seasons as defensive coordinator.
Going out on a limb here, but I’ll venture to say Tennessee is not going to win 10 games this season. The challenge for Pruitt at the moment is making sure the Vols don’t lose 10. With the exception of that Charlotte game on Nov. 3, there’s not a sure-fire “W” left on the schedule.
So 3-9 is definitely in play. A losing record is almost assured. How might this combustible coach handle that?
We know this: Pruitt certainly didn’t handle losing at Georgia very well. He didn’t handle people very well, period. That’s well-documented. But the Bulldogs lost a total of six games in 2014 and ’15 and he nearly created a mutiny (or tried to create one, depending on whom one believes).
Of course, it wasn’t like Pruitt didn’t have a hand in those losses. They included 38-20 and 27-3 losses to Florida in back-to-back years, and giving up 70 points in two games against Tennessee, one a Georgia win and the other a come-from-ahead loss. Alabama lit him up for 38 points in 2015 in Athens and South Carolina and Georgia Tech also victimized Pruitt’s defenses to the tune of the 30-plus points during those two tumultuous seasons.
But when things didn’t go well at Georgia, it tended to turn into an offense vs. defense thing. That was especially true in the second season after Mike Bobo and Will Friend left for Colorado State and Brian Schottenheimer came in as offensive coordinator in 2016. The conflict and disharmony of that season has been well-documented and concluded with the firing of head coach Mark Richt.
In fact, many of the principal parties that stood with Pruitt during those divisive seasons in Athens will stand with him on the Tennessee sideline on Saturday. Fellow Alabama alums Friend and Kevin Sherrer are coaching the offensive line and coordinating the defense, respectively. Tracy Rocker, Pruitt’s defensive line coach at Georgia, is also coaching the Vols’ D-line. Brian Neidermeyer, who was a defensive graduate assistant for Pruitt at Georgia, is now coaching tight ends at Tennessee. So there will be a lot of familiarity and motivation when the Vols pull into town on Saturday
Those coaches are part of what everybody agrees is an exceptional coaching staff that Pruitt has assembled up on Rocky Top. And they’re going to be with him for a while. Five members of Pruitt’s staff have three-year guaranteed contracts. In addition to Friend, Sherrer and co-defensive coordinator Chris Rumph, they include first-time offensive coordinator Tyson Helton and the strength coach, Craig Fitzgerald.
There’s already some questions about the offense. As Tennessee comes to Athens ranked in the bottom third of the SEC in scoring offense (29.5 ppg), word is that Friend has assumed some of the game-planning and play-calling responsibilities.
None of which is to say Pruitt won’t eventually get it done at Tennessee. He might well get it turned around. He has the same Nick Saban blueprint that Kirby Smart has put to good use at UGA. It’s just going to take some time.
Right now, Pruitt is trying to stick square pegs in round holes. They’ve switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 and don’t really have the linebackers and secondary to support it. The offense remains a work in progress with a pedestrian quarterback working under his third offensive coordinator.
Frankly, it’s kind of a mess. Hence, the 32-point line Las Vegas handicappers are giving to Georgia. Unheard of in a matchup of perennial SEC powerhouses.
But that’s how far Tennessee has sunk. And now the Vols and new athletic director Philip Fulmer are banking on Pruitt getting it done. Fulmer picked Pruitt over Mel Tucker, who is Georgia’s current defensive coordinator. For that, I’m sure all Bulldogs are thankful.
Players who played for Pruitt when he was at Georgia spoke mostly positively about their experience with him. The man obviously knows what good players look like and what to do with them once they’re on campus.
That’s why I would expect little in the way of mercy from the Bulldogs when the Vols take the field Saturday. Georgia is hosting a Who’s Who in Recruiting when it comes to the quality and quantity of prospects that are supposed to be at the game. When Tennessee had it going on in the 1990s, one of the key elements was the program’s ability to recruit the best and brightest out Georgia and Atlanta in particular.
Fulmer and Pruitt know this as well as anybody. But so does Smart.
Look for the Bulldogs to pour it on. Maybe they can get Pruitt to break a whiteboard.