Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt always has his players’ backs, but after Saturday’s double-overtime loss to BYU at Neyland Stadium he threw one of them under the bus.
Maybe the Vols need more of that.
Victory was all but locked up with BYU backed up inside its own 10-yard line with less than 30 seconds to go. Then sophomore cornerback Alontae Taylor blew an assignment and left the wide receiver he was covering get behind him to catch a pass and gain 64 yards.
“It’s hard to figure that one out,” Pruitt said as he opened his post-game press conference.
Asked what defense the Vols were in for that play, Pruitt responded sarcastically: “The one that you don’t let them throw it 75 yards.”
Asked later if he thought Taylor was rattled going into overtime, Pruitt got irritated: “Alontae should have been rattled after I got onto him. Come on, there’s 75 yards to go there. He’s gotta use a little common sense. He’ll learn from it and we’ll get better from it.”
Maybe they will, but that’s hardly what Vols fans want to hear after another head-scratching loss. Tennessee wasn’t going to rebuild Rome in a day, especially after the loss to Georgia State in the season opener, but beating BYU would have been a step in the right direction.
Pruitt said there were plenty of other mistakes made by the Vols, but he was the most emphatic when discussing the one Taylor made that cost them the win.
Pruitt has done a good job of balancing criticism and compliments since he took charge of the program, but maybe these players need to hear more criticism than he thinks.
This team is not close to getting back to the level of prominence everybody seems to think the Vols deserve to reach. Maybe they need more tough love to get there. Maybe they need to hear more about their mistakes so they understand exactly how far they have to go.
It’s not smart to rail on college kids all the time. There has to be some level of love and encouragement, but maybe Pruitt’s balanced approach needs to change because so far it’s not working and might even be forcing the program to fall further behind.
GUARANTANO HAS ANOTHER IFFY GAME
Of all the problems Tennessee has to solve, one that may be the most frustrating is quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
Throughout spring drills, summer media sessions and fall camp Guarantano and others painted the picture of a player who was ready to take the next step.
He was finally the surefire starter. He had an offensive coordinator who was going to open up doors he never knew were in his way. He had a new and great relationship with Pruitt.
Now it is fair to wonder if that all was for naught. He was not necessarily terrible in either game, but he’s doing a lot more this season to potentially put his team in a bad situation than he did last year when he was praised for his ball security.
The only touchdown he threw against BYU came on a lucky deflection after he threw into coverage. Later in the game, he missed a receiver earlier in his route and when he finally threw it the ball got knocked away in the end zone.
Pruitt got in Guarantano’s face after that one, but the mistakes kept coming. The interception he threw on the first drive of the third quarter was awful, and when he had a chance later in the quarter to hit Josh Palmer for a long gain he overthrew him. In the fourth quarter he threw a dangerous pass that easily could have turned into a 100-yard interception return for BYU.
The talent is there and so is the potential, but just like the rest of Tennessee’s players Guarantano needs to find another gear that everybody talked about but has yet to see.
Vols fans who have given up on this season might find solace in the idea that a healthy number of true freshmen are impacting the game, which likely bodes well for the future.
Pruitt has not been afraid to give true freshmen playing time, and that is getting more obvious by the week — so much so that it’s safe to say the idea is here to stay.
It may not seem ideal at this point, but Pruitt is trying to build for the coming seasons (if he lasts that long). To do that and win in the SEC players need experience. There will be ups and downs with this approach, but patience could pay off in a big way. To be fair, the freshmen who are playing a lot of snaps are either as good or close to as good as the players next to them on the depth chart.
For the second game in a row, Warren Burrell started at cornerback and Henry To’o To’o started at middle linebacker. Running back Eric Gray entered the game on the second snap after starter Ty Chandler waved him on following a tough run.
Gray picked up where he left off last week by making two defenders miss on a run of 13 yards, which came on the first play he was on the field. He finished with 17 carries for 77 yards and caught two passes for five yards.
Just like last week, To’o To’o had impressive plays, too. Perhaps his best came with BYU driving near midfield late in the second quarter when he burst through the middle of the line to drop running back Ty’Son Williams for a loss of two yards on 3rd-and-3. By forcing a punt with two minutes to go, the Vols had plenty of time to drive for a field goal just before halftime.
Burrell and To’o To’o weren’t the only freshmen to play on defense. At one point in the second quarter Roman Harrison and Quavaris Crouch joined them on the field on the same play.
The future could be could so Vols fans with patience may be rewarded.