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VOL. 43 | NO. 31 | Friday, August 2, 2019

Vols' Pruitt looks backward to move forward

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Coach Jeremy Pruitt hits the field with the team last season. The Vols lost to Florida 47-21.

-- File Photo By Jerry Denham/The Ledger

First-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt was so focused on the bigger picture, he unintentionally overlooked what truly matters most.

After Pruitt was hired at Tennessee before the 2018 football season, he spent his first six months on the job making sure everything was in place for the future.

He made sure the weight room was in order. He took care of the practice field. He tried to improve the nutrition program.

But after the Vols finished with a 5-7 record, Pruitt sat back and assessed the reasons for some of the failures. He noticed UT’s mental errors and lack of fight at certain points in games.

That was uncharacteristic of teams Pruitt had coached over the years.

How did it happen?

“Well, I lost the most important thing to me, which is our players themselves, and the relationships that have always been a strength of mine,” Pruitt explains.

Pruitt’s goal the last few months has been to build stronger relationships between the coaching staff and the players. He says he believes the deeper connections will translate into more emotional investment on the field, with players working harder and sacrificing more.

“And it takes time, right? Over time you learn to trust people when you get to know them and know who they are,” Pruitt points out. “With that, it’s been very positive this offseason. Our players are comfortable around our coaching staff, and you can see guys that maybe at one time, I wondered whether or not they’d be able to help us (do) what we want to accomplish at Tennessee.

“Now, it’s gotten where I can see guys kind of growing and developing and really having an opportunity to turn themselves into some fine football players. I’m excited about this year.”

Tennessee’s players have seen a change in their head coach. They notice how much more comfortable he seems around the team and the effort he’s made to know them on a more personal level.

Redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and his girlfriend had dinner with Pruitt and Pruitt’s wife, Casey, at the coach’s house back in February.

The meal helped enhance the bond between the coach and quarterback.

“We sat down and we talked, and we had real conversations and we ate dinner together,” Guarantano recalls. “That’s really what gave us that jump forward… I was thankful for that moment, to be honest. Ever since then, I think we see eye-to-eye.

“Of course, he still gets in my tail if he thinks I’m not doing something right, as he should, because he’s a great head coach, and I think that he’s going to be an even better one in the future because of the way he recruits and the way he analyzes the game.”

Getting to see a side of Pruitt in a more relaxed setting outside of the facility knocked down some walls and opened even more lines of communication.

“We talked football. We talked life experiences. We talked what happened last year,” Guarantano adds. “We really just talked about everything. Going back to that, I smile thinking about it, because it really was a big step forward for us.”

Guarantano is assuming an even bigger leadership role this season for the Vols. The New Jersey native took a beating last season behind a shaky offensive line.

Guarantano finished the season completing 153 of 246 passes for 1,907 yards, 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

The preseason Maxwell Award watch list selection earned the team’s respect by playing through pain and frustration. Pruitt expects even more growth from Guarantano this season under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.

“He’s our quarterback. I believe in Jarrett,” Pruitt says. “Over the last 18 months, I’ve got to know who he is. The guy has lots of experience. He’s a tough guy that’s got plenty of arm strength. He’s a really good athlete. He understands our expectations and I think he’s been a tremendous leader over the last six months of this offseason.”

Coaching changes always require time for everyone to adapt to the new dynamics, and Guarantano is pleased with how his relationship has evolved with Pruitt.

“We’re able to talk more. We’re able to just really have fun a little bit more with each other,” Guarantano points out. “I get a better feel of what he’s trying to do with the program now. He looks at me as another coach on the field, and I need to take that role on. He respects me and I respect him immensely.”

Although the relationship aspect is key, Pruitt realizes the Vols will still be judged by production on the field. Until the games begin, Pruitt has no idea how the changes will impact the bottom line of wins and losses.

But he feels good about how he’s prioritized his responsibilities entering his second season as a head coach. The public appearances, media obligations and other outside demands are still part of the job.

But making sure the players know he has their best interest at heart beyond just the football field is paramount.

As the Vols begin fall camp this week, Pruitt has already seen a return on the investment.

“I’m as excited about this football team as any I’ve ever been around, and it’s not about how many games we’re gonna win or anything like that,” Pruitt adds.

“I know that’s how you’re measured, but it’s about how far they’ve come in the last 18 months. That’s what excites me about it, about where we’re going.”

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