Vols riding high (for a change) as Tide rolls in

Friday, October 19, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 42
By Rhiannon Potkey

Wide receiver Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro is out of the doghouse and contributing to Tennessee’s recent renaissance.  He had five catches for 71 yards and a touchdown at Auburn.

-- Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt took a swig of water as he stood behind the podium, trying to choke back his emotions.

The Vols had just lost to Georgia, but Pruitt knew the final score didn’t reflect how hard his team had played. He wanted more for his players than just a “moral victory.”

It was a much different scene two weeks later, with Pruitt running off the field pumping his fist to the UT fans speckled throughout Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Ending a long stretch of SEC misery, Tennessee upset then No. 21-ranked Auburn 30-24 last weekend.

The validating win snapped UT’s 11-game SEC losing streak dating back to the 2016 season and was the program’s first victory over an SEC West opponent since 2010.

Although it’s too early to tell if it was a signature win, Pruitt’s first conference victory as a head coach provided affirmation the program is making progress.

“I think any time you win, or you play well, it does give you a little bit of confidence, and I think our players probably need that,” Pruitt says. “They work hard.

“You work hard to try and have success and on this day in time, it’s measured in wins and losses.”

An even bigger test awaits the Vols – one with some sentimentality attached for Pruitt.

Tennessee (3-3, 1-2) hosts No. 1 Alabama (7-0, 4-0) on Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium.

Alabama has won 11 consecutive in the series, with Tennessee’s last victory coming in 2006, the year before Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa.

Born and raised in Rainsville, Alabama, Pruitt spent five years on Saban’s staff and won four national championships, including last year as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. He is a former Alabama defensive back who rose from a hometown high school coach to a sought-after Division I hire.

Pruitt’s friends back in DeKalb County may be torn with their allegiances this week for the third Saturday in October rivalry.

“This game means a whole lot to a whole lot of people. It’s a very important game, not only because it’s the next one, but because of the tradition that comes with this game,” Pruitt acknowledges.

“I think we’ve got to do our part to create this rivalry again. It’s not been much of a rivalry the past few years. We have to uphold our end of it.”

At the very least, UT enters with newfound momentum. Coming off the bye week, the Vols made great strides against Auburn. Their offense was more aggressive and their defense was opportunistic.

With offensive coordinator Tyson Helton moving down from the booth to the sideline, Jarrett Guarantano had a career day.

The redshirt sophomore quarterback was allowed to take more shots downfield, completing 21 of 32 passes for a career-best 328 yards and two touchdowns.

After all the ups and downs he’s incurred the last two seasons, the first SEC win of his career meant a lot to Guarantano.

“It was an emotional moment for me,” Guarantano says. “It’d been a long time coming.”

Guarantano completed passes to nine different receivers, led by Jauan Jennings. The redshirt junior from Murfreesboro flashed his old form, catching five passes for 71 yards, including the 25-yard go-ahead touchdown.

Having Jennings back making clutch catches is a catalyst for the Vols. He’s a player universally loved by his teammates, and one grateful to still be representing UT.

Jennings was dismissed from the team last year by interim coach Brady Hoke and former athletics director John Currie for an expletive-laced social media post.

He was reinstated by athletics director Phillip Fulmer and Pruitt after they all “hashed out the difficulties,” Jennings says.

“I was hoping and praying I would get a chance,” Jennings says of returning to the Vols.

“My priority was not going anywhere else, so I didn’t even really think about going to play anywhere else. I was just focused on getting back on the team.”

Pruitt’s had nothing but praise for Jennings, saying he’s done everything Pruitt has asked since the new staff arrived 10 months ago.

“He’s one of my favorite guys. Guy competes, works hard. He loves the University of Tennessee, has passion for it,” Pruitt adds.

“He’s healthy. I’ve said all along; the guy had a bad knee injury. He just got started practicing in fall camp and it would take him a while to get his legs back under him.

“He’s closer to being healthy, so it’s good to see that. It’s good to see him be able to go out there and compete because I think he’s a guy that has an impact on the other players on our team, so I’m glad for him.”

Tennessee’s victory over Auburn didn’t come without a cost. Senior linebacker Jonathan Kongbo suffered a torn ACL, ending his season and career at UT. Linebacker Daniel Bituli was ejected for targeting in the second half, meaning he’ll have to miss the first half against Alabama.

The limited personnel isn’t ideal going against arguably the best Alabama team in Saban’s reign.

The Crimson Tide features a much more explosive offense this season, averaging a nation-leading 53.6 points per game.

Given his history, Pruitt has intimate knowledge of the Crimson Tide and knows exactly what type of challenge UT is facing.

Pruitt employs the typical 24-hour rule of allowing players to celebrate victories before focusing on the next opponent.

Although the accolades were still rolling in through Monday morning, the Vols professed to have already closed the door on Auburn and turned their full attention to Alabama.

It’s a game Pruitt termed a “measuring stick” to see how far UT still must go to reach national championship contending status again.

He knows that is the expectation on Rocky Top.

“Our fan base is hungry and they should be,” Pruitt says. “That’s one thing we talk to all of our players about all the time.

“They were playing football long before we ever got to Tennessee, and they’re going to be playing it a long time after we’re gone.

“So our job is to make it better than it was when we found it, and that’s what we plan on doing for our fans.”