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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee defensive back Nigel Warrior appeals to the crowd during the Vols' home game against Georgia on Oct. 5.

KNOXVILLE — It was Tuesday afternoon at the University of Tennessee's Ray and Lucy Hand Digital Studio inside the Brenda Lawson Athletic Center, and senior defensive back Nigel Warrior was discussing his superb play of late as his Big Orange career nears its end.

"Just having more passion. With all the things that have happened here," he said, pausing briefly, "more focused than I have been."

You can overanalyze or dramatize the words of young people. They aren't always old enough or mature enough to perfectly express their thoughts.

But those eight words from Warrior — "with all the things that have happened here" — does as much to explain the delayed resurgence of UT football under second-year coach Jeremy Pruitt as anything uttered by anyone else since the firing of Butch Jones late in the 2017 season.

Like most of the senior Volunteers, Warrior arrived in Knoxville under Jones, a man given to catchy sayings and motivational tools far more than solid coaching skills. Warrior now ends his UT career under Pruitt, a plainspoken man far more comfortable with X's and O's and game video than a banquet room full of boosters.

On every level, Tennessee is more solid in all phases of football — offense, defense and special teams — than it has been in years, if not a decade or more, as it prepares for Saturday night's game at Missouri, which has beaten the Vols by identical 50-17 scores the past two seasons.

Not that Pruitt wishes either his players or the program's fan base to yet look at this season through pale orange glasses.

"If they think that, then they are walking around with blinders on," he said of his players on Monday.

"I mean, we have showed them lots of ways we can improve offensively, defensively and on special teams. I am pretty sure our guys understand that. I think that is one of the things we have improved on as a football team is just self-awareness."

Here's what Warrior, the son of all-time UT great Dale Carter, said about the coaches when asked about their X's and O's skills helping the Vols improve to 5-5 after losing their first two games and falling to 1-4: "The coaches put us in the right position most of the time. I can do a little something, but not like they do it."

Yet even Pruitt praised Warrior on Monday: "He is a very gifted athlete that has ball skills. He can play man-to-man, he can tackle in space, he has toughness and he has instincts. He wants to be really good. He has taken to the coaching that he has received. He has improved tremendously in the last 18 months. Probably just as much as any player that I have ever been around."

They have all improved tremendously since that shocking season-opening loss to Georgia State. One of the reasons, no doubt, is the Vols being healthier than they have in years. Another is a 180-degree change in attitude from the Jones era and the residue it left behind last year. Said Warrior of those runaway losses to Mizzou: "We gave in those games. We fell off. We didn't care."

Senior linebacker Daniel Bituli, the team's leading tackler this season who recorded 19 in the 17-13 win over Kentucky, said it was the second win of the season after that 1-4 start — a 20-10 home victory over Mississippi State — that rekindled a spark, or several, unseen in this program for several seasons.

"We had a lot of little sparks during the season," he said. "After going against a really great running back in the Mississippi State game, we realized that if we're communicating as much as possible on the field, if we know what we were going to do, if we read our cues correctly, then the world is ours. We can stop anybody."

Added Warrior regarding what has changed: "Becoming more of a team. Not arguing with each other."

Indeed, after holding Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill — the leading rusher in the Southeastern Conference at the time with an average of 119 yards a game — to 13 yards that day, the Vols have stopped everybody else on their schedule except Alabama.

Let them stop both Missouri and Vanderbilt to close out the schedule, and they just might wrap up the season in a Florida bowl game, because winning those two games would make them 5-3 in conference play and 7-5 overall.

Pruitt, ever the old-school coach, spoke of what's changed: "We know our limitations, our strengths, where we are at and where we are not. If you know those things, you can fix things."

But Warrior, having suffered through all those things that happened here before the arrival of Pruitt, put the Big Orange revival in more human terms, beginning with himself.

"I'm not saying I didn't love it," he said of the past. "But I just have more love for what I'm doing it for and who I'm playing with."

And as everyone from Confucius to motivational speaker Harvey Mackay has been credited with saying, "Love what you do and you'll never work a day in your life."

Or you'll at least stand a pretty good chance of winning at least as many SEC football games as you lose.

some text Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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