KNOXVILLE — Since Jeremy Pruitt marched inside from a Tennessee football practice unhappy with his team's player leadership on Sept. 12, the Volunteers have posted a lackluster victory against a listless opponent and lost two games by 26 points each.
Through the growing pains, the first-year head coach is finally starting to see some of what he demanded that day nearly three weeks ago.
"There's starting to be a little bit of leadership," Pruitt said after Tennessee's 38-12 loss at No. 2 Georgia on Saturday. "They're starting to kind of muster amongst the group. Guys are coming out of their shell. I think we're headed in the right direction."
The Vols (2-3, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) are off this week before playing at No. 8 Auburn on Oct. 13 and hosting top-ranked Alabama on Oct. 20. The stretch against top-10 foes will continue to test the will of a team that has not won an SEC game since 2016.
But Tennessee's ability to claw back into the game against Georgia in the fourth quarter gave Pruitt a ploy to continue motivating his team through the bye week.
"I think today was a good lesson for our guys," he said. "If we execute, we have a chance to have success against some of the better teams in this league. It's about what we do. I think it's a good lesson for them. It's a learning lesson that we can take forward and use throughout the rest of the year."
The message resonated with sophomore running back Ty Chandler, who brought the Volunteers within 24-12 in the fourth quarter with his 35-yard touchdown reception on a swing pass from Jarrett Guarantano.
"There ain't nobody stopping us but ourselves," Chandler said. "That's what we've got to focus on."
Tennessee's schedule eases up after the Alabama game, but the Vols face an uphill battle toward bowl eligibility — and perhaps even toward eclipsing last season's 4-8 record. However, Pruitt laid out some theories for why the Vols will continue to improve as the season progresses.
"I've said this a bunch of times, and I'm not trying to make any excuses — because there is none — but the only way to get better at football is to play it," Pruitt said. "We had a lot of guys that wasn't here this spring that didn't play together. We're getting better on the run. We knew that when we got going. We've got to take what we've got and go with it. I think our guys are starting to realize it."
Pruitt noted just five of his team's 24 starters are seniors. The Vols' youth is fueling their coach's optimism that one day they can look like the teams they're competing against during this three-game stretch.
"Well, to me," Pruitt said, "if you look about the team we played today and the team we play the next week and the team after that, that's what we want to be."