By Jimmy Hyams
Jeremy Pruitt’s first win at Tennessee was rather lop-sided, but it wasn’t fool’s gold for the Vols’ first-year head coach.
Pruitt understands Tennessee has a lot of room for improvement despite a 59-3 victory Saturday over hapless East Tennessee State University at Neyland Stadium in front of an actual-attendance crowd of less than 85,000.
And he knows the Bucs don’t compare to Alabama or Georgia or even Florida – the Vols’ opponent in two weeks.
So Pruitt wasn’t in the mood to celebrate by tearing down a goal post, hoisting it on his shoulders and running naked down Cumberland Avenue.
No, Pruitt expects more from his team – despite the 56-point victory.
Want an example?
Tennessee didn’t have a turnover for the second game in a row and committed just three penalties. But when UT’s play-by-play announcer Bob Kesling asked Pruitt post-game about his team playing a clean game, Pruitt wouldn’t acknowledge it.
“I’ll have to see the film,’’ he said.
The film will show a number of positive things – like the Vols completing three passes of at least 50 yards. It will show efficiency from quarterbacks Jarrett Guarantano and Keller Chryst, who combined to complete 11 of 16 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown. It will show a blocked punt for a touchdown, an interception return for a touchdown and an interception return to the ETSU 3-yard line to set up another touchdown.
It will show hard running by freshman Jeremy Banks, who gained 62 yards on 13 carries and bulled his way into the end zone from 1 and 3 yards out.
“Jeremy Banks is another guy that likes to practice,’’ Pruitt said. “He practices the right way, competes hard. … I’d rather be saying whoa than go (to a player). You have to say whoa with him.’’
Another player who performed well was junior college defensive tackle Emmit Gooden, who had a team-high eight tackles.
“I don’t know how much he shined today,’’ Pruitt said. “But the guy’s got ability. He’s still learning how to work, still learning the defense. And when he wants to, he can be a pretty good football player. But he’s got to do it all the time. That’s not just him, that’s a lot of guys in our program.’’
Receiver Marquez Callaway, who led the team again with five catches for 78 yards, also has ability. Callaway has 11 catches in two games – he had 24 all of last year. He obviously has built a bond with Guarantano. Don’t be surprised if Callaway has a 60 catch season.
Another positive for UT was the play of freshman cornerback Bryce Thompson, who had an interception return to the 3-yard line, setting up a touchdown for a 24-0 lead. It was part of a 28-point second quarter barrage by the Vols.
“Bryce would be the first to tell you he didn’t play well last week (against West Virginia),’’ Pruitt said. “…The one thing he did, he came back on Monday and competed and he played with an edge. He practiced with an edge. If he continues to do that, he’s going to get better every week. That was drastically different than some of the other guys.’’
Therein tells you what Pruitt is looking for – players willing to compete daily.
It’s one thing to get beat. It’s another to respond like a whipped pup.
That’s not how Thompson responded after the Vols lost 40-14 to West Virginia.
Pruitt wants competitors, he wants players with mental toughness, players who don’t accept defeat.
That’s the culture he is trying to build.