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VOL. 43 | NO. 49 | Friday, December 6, 2019

Meeting after Florida game helped turn Vols’ season

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Even the most optimistic Tennessee football fan would have been hard-pressed in early October to predict a seasonal resurrection.

Following a road loss to Florida, the Vols were 1-4 and searching for answers.

A bowl game seemed like a pipe dream, and losses to Georgia State and BYU had elicited harsh criticism and negative headlines.

Questions about the progress of the program under second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt were plentiful.

Sensing the future was at a critical crossroad, Pruitt called a team meeting once the Vols landed back in Knoxville from the trip to Florida.

“The whole message was, if you’re here, are you really going to be here for us?” Tennessee senior defensive back Nigel Warrior recalls. “We really turned it around. We came together. We became one.”

Blocking out the distractions, the Vols found their resolve, gained confidence and finished with a flourish.

They rallied to win six of their final seven games, including five consecutive wins to close the regular season, and finish with a 7-5 record. Those six victories came against Mississippi State (6-6), South Carolina (4-8), Alabama-Birmingham (9-2), Kentucky (7-5), Missouri (6-6) and Vanderbilt (3-9).

Tennessee clinched bowl eligibility with one game still remaining and capped the turnaround with a victory against rival Vanderbilt that snapped a three-game losing streak to the Commodores.

“These guys have put in a whole lot of time and effort in getting Tennessee football at where it needs to be,” Pruitt says. “I can’t say enough about the players and the seniors and the leadership that they have provided throughout the course of the year.

“We were 1-4 and probably nobody gave us much hope. But these guys stayed the course and stuck together. That credit goes to our coaching staff and our assistant coaches for having a plan.”

Tennessee is bowl eligible for the first time since 2016, and this trip feels much more rewarding given the path the Vols have taken to get there.

“Honestly, we sit back and think about it a lot. It says a lot about this team’s character. It also shows the passion that the coaches have. They were on us day-in and day-out,” Tennessee junior offensive lineman Trey Smith explains.

“We went to work every day, no matter how bad the outcome was and what everyone else was saying. No matter what they said, at the end of the day we bought into Coach Pruitt’s vision and we worked our butts off every day. When you do that and you believe in the system, you get the results you see.”

Tennessee’s success didn’t come immediately after that team meeting, but signs of progress flashed in each game.

The defense discovered an identity, the offense leaned on its playmakers and the coaching staff tailored game plans to fit the opponent.

“It wasn’t that far away. I don’t want to take away anything from the teams that beat us, but we contributed a lot to that by turning the football over or not playing clean ball or not executing,” Pruitt adds. “It probably helped to get a few of our guys back, and we developed a little bit more as a football team because of lack of experience. We improved as the season went, which is what you want to do.”

Within Tennessee’s resurrection story came the redemption story of Jarrett Guarantano. The redshirt junior quarterback was benched for his poor performance and not executing the plays called by the coaches.

The most damning sequence came in Tennessee’s loss to Alabama. Trailing 28-13 and facing fourth-and-goal from inches away in the fourth quarter, Guarantano called his own number instead of handing off and fumbled the ball at the goal line.

Alabama’s Trevon Diggs returned the fumble 100 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.

Guarantano had to earn back the trust of his teammates and coaches in the ensuing weeks.

He says he received death threats from fans on social media and nasty messages were directed at his sister. But Guarantano gradually retained his standing, and got his chance to shine against Missouri.

Making his first start since Sept. 21, Guarantano threw for a career-high 415 yards in a 24-20 win over Missouri to clinch bowl eligibility for the Vols.

He joined Peyton Manning and Tyler Bray as the only Tennessee players to throw for more than 400 yards in a game.

“This was probably my last opportunity, to be honest,” an emotional Guarantano said in the aftermath. “For me to be able to come out and start and get this opportunity again, I didn’t have any option but to come out here and try to play my best ball.”

While the passing game dominated in the win over Missouri – with Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer all exceeding 100 yards receiving – the Vols went to the ground to beat Vandy.

Eric Gray ran for a true-freshman program record 246 yards and three touchdowns, including first-half scoring sprints of 56 and 94 yards, to pound the Commodores amid weather delays and send the Tennessee seniors out in style.

“These seniors really had an attitude of, ‘Coach me, coach.’ Whatever they needed to improve, whatever they needed to do to help us get to the next step,” Pruitt says. “To me, we have good leaders on our team, but I think it says a lot about the players on our team. It doesn’t do any good if you have good leadership, if the guys don’t want to follow the leadership. I think that says a lot about our team in itself.”

Although the start has been bumpy, Pruitt is proud of how the Vols stuck together through adversity and figured out ways to win down the stretch.

“Unless you were here the first day that I walked in this building, I don’t think you understand how far we actually have come,” Pruitt acknowledges. “Coach (Phillip) Fulmer was here. It’s a long way, I can assure you of that. Our guys, I’m excited for them – the way they feel, the confidence they have. We’re playing with so much more confidence. They’re believing in themselves, believing in each other.”

Tennessee, which finished in third place in the SEC East, will learn its bowl destination when the bids are announced Dec. 8.

Making a bowl should be the lowest expectation at Tennessee, a program that has the resources and investment to contend for titles.

The Vols benefited this season by a weaker SEC, but their turnaround still merits celebration.

Predicting what might come next is precarious, but this team took steps forward when darkness surrounded them.

“We have lots of momentum,” Pruitt says. “Our kids are excited about being at Tennessee. They’re excited about the future. I’m excited about it.

“I’m looking forward to bowl practice so we can continue to develop as a football team.

“We have a long way to go to where we want to get to, and we want to finish. We have one more opportunity to finish, and that’s something that we’re going to focus on.”

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