By Steve Williams

When Jeremy Pruitt said late last season that he needed better players, the first-year Tennessee football coach was criticized by some, although he was just being brutally honest.

When he said last week in his open date press conference that his team was “a hundred times better” than it was a year ago, he was criticized for going overboard in evaluating the team, which has gotten off to a 1-3 start in 2019, including a stunning season-opening loss to Georgia State and a 31-point defeat at Florida in its last game.

In both cases, I think Pruitt was just being honest with his remarks, although he probably could have picked a better figure of speech to use after the one-sided loss in the Swamp.

Pruitt, it seems, never had a honeymoon with this job – his first as a head coach on the collegiate level.

That’s what happens I guess when you’re the fourth head coach in what now is an 11-year long rebuilding project.

Patience has worn thin for many fans. And even some in the local media critique Pruitt like he has been on the job for years, when in actuality, he’s only been here a little over 21 months.

Is that fair? I don’t think so.

You don’t build a football program overnight, particularly one that has been down for most of the past 11 seasons.

I’ll say this too: Despite being 1-3 right now, Pruitt is the best football coach Tennessee has had since Phillip Fulmer held the reins. And Fulmer, who was head coach of the Vols for 16 years and guided them to a national championship in 1998, hand-picked him – his first hire as UT’s athletic director.

Pruitt hasn’t been perfect early on as a head coach, but I feel he will only get better with time.

As I’ve written before, Tennessee’s football program needs stability in its coaching staff more than anything, if it wants to regain a place among the nation’s elite. For 32 years – 16 under Johnny Majors and another 16 under Fulmer – UT football enjoyed a lot of good times and won championships. Many of you are old enough to remember. If you’re 30 or younger, you probably don’t.

Tennessee football was blindsided at the start of this season. Nobody expected what happened to happen. But Georgia State was a better football team than Tennessee on that day and Pruitt admitted Georgia State “out-coached us.”

The Vols bounced back and had a good BYU team beat. Then a breakdown in the secondary in the closing seconds of regulation allowed the Cougars to tie the game and win in overtime.

Tennessee did topple Chattanooga as expected in Game 3, but lost to Florida far worse than expected. Surprisingly, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was benched and freshman Brian Mauer was put in at the start of the second half.

The Vols’ strength going into this season, we thought, was having an experienced quarterback and a talented secondary. Instead, in the first four games, these two areas have been their weakest.

The starting quarterback position was reopened last week and Pruitt said that Guarantano, Mauer and J.T. Shrout would get the same number of reps in practice.

“At quarterback and every position, we’ll play who we think gives us the best chance to win,” said Pruitt.

Youth also has contributed to the 1-3 start. Pruitt said 80 of the squad’s 115 players are freshmen and sophomores. He also pointed out that 17 true freshmen have played this year and he expects more will as the season goes on.

With youth comes hope and surprises. Let’s hope they grow up fast and help bring us something to cheer about over the remainder of the season. There’s still a long way to go.

“I don’t see any quit in this group,” said Pruitt. “These guys I think are fighters.”

The season resumes Saturday night with the No. 3 ranked Georgia Bulldogs coming to town. Word has it their fans plan to take over Neyland Stadium with a “Red Out.”

I don’t think the UT fans will let that happen. They’ve been one of the few bright spots of this season already and I’ll be surprised if they don’t step up again.