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AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee wide receiver Jauan Jennings outruns Vanderbilt safety Anfernee Orji in the second half of Saturday's SEC East matchup in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE — It was one of those plainspoken, blatantly honest comments that second-year Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt so often delivers if you're paying close enough attention.

"Unless you were here the first day I walked into this building (football complex)," Pruitt said after the Volunteers' 28-10 victory over visiting Vanderbilt on Saturday evening, "I'm not sure you can understand how far we've come."

It was probably not as far as many fans would have preferred they might have come, given that this was the Vols' first win over the Commodores since 2015. When you've lost to Vandy for three straight Novembers, and you're facing a pretty bad Commodores team at that, it certainly would have been fair for most Volniacs to at least wish for one of those 55-10 blowouts that Peyton Manning and Co. were so adept at orchestrating.

But a win is a win, especially on a soggy, stormy night that included two somewhat lengthy delays.

"It means everything to me because I love this state," Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Smith said. "It's nice to restore the balance."

This win also was not unlike most of the Vols' previous six in this somewhat frustrating, never dull, fairly satisfying 7-5 regular season. Especially over the last month. This victory, not unlike the four straight that had come before it, was far from perfect but equally far from wretched, and quite memorably framed by a pair of stunning touchdown runs from true freshman running back Eric Gray, who swiftly galloped for scoring jaunts of 56 and 94 yards.

Let us repeat: "true freshman running back Eric Gray."

From memories such as that will members of the Big Orange Nation have dreams of a 2020 SEC East championship dancing in their heads throughout the winter.

And that will be the dream going forward, because sports at the elite college and professional levels tend to lean too much toward the future. That's why websites devoted to recruiting have flourished of late. And coaches now have, on occasion, less than two years to prove their worth. We want it yesterday. We demand it today. Or there may be no tomorrow for those who fall short of that preferred standard.

Which also makes what transpired in Volsville this autumn all the more remarkable. The players and coaches didn't point fingers when they were 0-2 and 1-4. They didn't jump ship. The leadership didn't feel the need to comment, other than athletic director Phillip Fulmer's single brief statement that he had no interest in returning as football coach.

They all just went to work. Day after day. Week after week, determined to get better, whatever the foggy definition of better is regarding the performances of teenagers becoming men.

"I would say communication," senior defensive back Nigel Warrior noted when asked what led to this season-long, step-by-step improvement. "What we see, what we feel out there."

Versatility was senior wideout Marquez Callaway's explanation for the late surge.

"A week ago we were throwing for over 400 yards (against Missouri)," he said. "The offense ran for almost 300 yards (297) tonight. We're balanced."

To return to Pruitt's early quote, no one may ever know the full extent of the train wreck he inherited at the close of Butch Jones' five-year coaching tenure. It certainly seemed a dysfunctional family at times. It appears to be that no longer.

"To do something like that," Pruitt said of the team's determined climb from that 1-4 hole, "you have to have great relationships. They (the players) hung together."

A video circulated by ESPN and others after the game showed an overly energetic, if not downright disturbing Jauan Jennings hanging too long on the Vanderbilt sideline before appearing to stomp on the face of Vandy punt returner Justice Shelton-Mosely after roughly throwing him to the ground when he already was out of bounds.

Amazingly, there was no flag on the play for either a late hit or unsportsmanlike conduct against Jennings, though the Southeastern Conference office supposedly could deliver some sort of discipline after reviewing the play.

For public relations purposes if nothing else, it does seem as if Pruitt, upon reviewing the video, might want to consider suspending Jennings for the first half of whatever bowl game the Vols play in, as well as having Jennings issue some sort of statement filled with contrition for his actions.

Nevertheless, one play by one overly jacked senior shouldn't detract from what this team accomplished after that 1-4 start.

"These guys did what most teams can't do," Pruitt said of the Vols' progression from September to November. "It wasn't any magic pill they all took. These guys put in a lot of energy and effort to get Tennessee football back to where it needs to be."

And where it hadn't been for a decade or more prior to the first day Pruitt walked into the Vols' football complex.

some text Mark Wiedmer

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

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