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Tennessee NCAA college football head coach Jeremy Pruitt speaks during Southeastern Conference Media Days Wednesday, July 18, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Tennessee is an all-time football program. Yes, we all remember all too well an all-time rotten year — UT lost eight games for the first time ever in 2017 — as Alabama and Georgia have ascended to national places of prominence.

That last fact cannot be overstated — especially around these parts — for a fan base that is eternally proud in a sport that is eternally happy to needle its rivals.

So enter Jeremy Pruitt. He checks a lot of anti-Butch Jones boxes, and that's a good thing. He has a championship pedigree, and that too is a good thing. He speaks like, acts like and looks like a football coach, and for the last few years of chasing hot or legendary names or the Butch experiment of wanting to win the press conference, Tennessee is in desperate need of one.

"My goal is to help put a football team on the field that they can be proud of by the way they play with their toughness, their effort, the way they play together," Pruitt said at his first SEC Media Days event. "They play smart. No matter what's on the scoreboard, when they leave the stadium, they say you know what, that's our team. That's what I want to give to our fan base."

Amen and pass the pompoms.

To be fair, the path Pruitt faces will not be easy. UT was winless in the league and has a roster with fewer stars than "Police Academy 6." While Jones was stumbling his way to nine fortunate wins in a hapless SEC East in 2015 and '16, he was the football equivalent of Nero watching the Knoxville football empire burn.

Now comes the reckoning. And the rebuilding.

Is Pruitt up to the task? We won't know until it's truly football time in Tennessee (Rest easy, John Ward), and we may not really know until it's football time in Tennessee comes in 2019 and beyond.

But the early returns offer reasons to be hopeful and reasons to be cautious.

First, let it be known that a slew of Georgia Bulldogs took shots at Pruitt this week. Aaron Murray and David Pollack, to name but two, delivered verbal jabs about Pruitt's time in Athens with Mark Richt.

To that UT fans should be strangely happy, if for no other reason than Georgia or Alabama or Florida alums do not take shots at Kentucky or Vanderbilt. Heck, those folks have not even had UT on the radar in going on a generation since UT is a staggeringly bad 4-26 in the last 10 years against Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

There also are whispers out of Knoxville that the hard-charging Pruitt and new athletic director Phillip Fulmer are not exactly seeing eye to eye as both feel their way in their new roles. And maybe those growing pains are to be expected considering the newness in some ways and the old habits — Fulmer being the coach; Pruitt working for guys way more famous than the AD — in others.

Still, Wednesday there were power players across the league, and one of the stars UT brought who believe Pruitt is the guy for the here and now.

Said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 the Zone: "The transition that happened created a lot of noise. I think Jeremy communicates in experience from FSU, UGA, ALA with high expectations and national championship experience, so he knows how to get that done. It's going to be different for him and he probably would admit that, but he seems to really have done a great job so far."

Said Nick Saban, Pruitt's former boss and no worse than power broker 1B behind Sankey in the league: "Jeremy is very capable. and he was one of the best coaches we have ever had on our staff. He will be very successful."

Marquez Callaway, a UT receiver who was one of three Volunteers picked to head to the media event in Atlanta on Wednesday: "We're ready for this season. He's a different coach (than Jones). He's a defensive-minded coach. He has been harping on discipline and toughness a lot. So that's what we're going to be — a hard-nosed football team."

Is Pruitt the guy? Impossible to know when they're in coats and ties in July and putting on their best behavior.

But here's a quick checklist on positives for Pruitt so far:

He handled Murray's criticism about his ability to be a CEO of a program like a CEO of a program.

He answers questions with a directness that (a) would make Butch pass out and (b) lets everyone know that he has a confidence in his knowledge of football that he's fine with mixing up a couple of syllables and some subject-verb agreement. (Know who else does that? Saban, aight.)

He refuses to reference a player by name. And while that may make it tough for beat writers and the rest of this industry, the truth is, name the last UT player who deserved to be singularly praised? We'll wait.

So Wednesday, in the bowels of the College Football Hall of Fame, no one is saying Pruitt took a step toward enshrinement. But here's at least one vote for believing this is the best football coach UT has had since his boss was sitting in his seat.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com and 423-757-6343.

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