KNOXVILLE — Tennessee ranked 13th in the Southeastern Conference in total offense entering this weekend, but there is one facet in which first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt thinks the Volunteers have performed proficiently in a mostly failed quest to score points.
"We have done a really good job of getting in third-and-manageable," Pruitt said.
It's what comes next that has stung the Volunteers (2-3, 0-2), who were off this weekend before returning to competition this Saturday at Auburn.
"We haven't converted," Pruitt said.
The Vols are 12th in the 14-team SEC on third-down conversions at 35.9 percent, and that's with — as Pruitt acknowledged — many of their third-down plays requiring little yardage to pick up a first down. The result is a scoring offense ranked 13th in the league, a passing offense ranked 13th in the league and just one first-half touchdown in three games against Power Five opponents.
Naturally, new offensive coordinator Tyson Helton has attracted scrutiny. But Pruitt's evaluation of Tennessee's ineffective third-and-short plays in last weekend's 38-12 loss at Georgia indicates there is plenty of blame to go around.
"It goes back to execution, not having mental errors, stepping with the right foot," Pruitt said. "Guys have to have a better understanding. We need to play with better pad level, need to get more push and the backs need to knock the holes forward."
The Vols were in third-and-1 situations on back-to-back series in the first quarter at Georgia and failed to convert both times. The offensive blunders led to three-and-out possessions that helped the Bulldogs develop a commanding advantage in time of possession, wear down Tennessee's defense and pull away late.
"I don't even know what the time of possession was," Pruitt said. "But I know this: We've got to get off the field on third down (on defense), and we've got to convert some third downs. You do that, it makes it a lot easier on both sides of the ball."
After Georgia took a 7-0 lead on its first possession, the Vols were in third-and-1 three plays into their second possession midway through the first quarter. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano lined up under center with an unorthodox trio in the backfield. H-back Ja'Quain Blakely was to his right, running back Madre London lined up behind Guarantano as a fullback and receiver Jauan Jennings lined up behind London as a running back.
Jennings pretended to receive a pitch from Guarantano, who handed off to London, but Georgia ignored the bluff and stuffed London short of the first-down marker.
The Vols faced another third-and-1 on their next possession. This time, a poorly thrown play-action pass from Guarantano fell incomplete off the outstretched arms of fullback Austin Pope.
Pruitt has not allowed Guarantano or Helton to speak to reporters this season, but the head coach has been spotted observing the offense more in practice recently. During his first several months on the job, Pruitt was seen working exclusively with the defense during portions of practice open to media.
"You can do whatever, but it's all about being able to execute," Pruitt said. "You have to have positive plays and not have negative plays, be efficient in the throw game and run the ball effectively. We haven't been able to do that for most of the year."
Especially on third downs.
"Third-and-1, and you're supposed to get third-and-1s," Pruitt said on his weekly television show. "They knocked us back."