By Steve Williams
I was one of the callers on the Vol Network’s statewide kickoff show prior to Tennessee’s football season opener against West Virginia on Sept. 1.
I had been listening to Bob Kesling, Tim Priest and Pat Ryan talk about some of the things new UT head coach Jeremy Pruitt was bringing back to the program, like the classic uniforms, a fullback and toughness that had been missing for much of the past 10 years.
So, when I got on the air, I told them I was so excited about UT football again that I felt like I was traveling back to the good old days in a time machine and wouldn’t be surprised if Pruitt even arranged to have a Tennessee Walking Horse high-stepping around the field at halftime in Charlotte.
They all laughed and I imagine a lot of other older Vol fans like me who were listening got a chuckle out of that, too. Most in the younger generation probably had never heard that the Tennessee Walking Horse used to be part of UT’s game day tradition.
Unfortunately, after the game started, it didn’t take long for my excitement to be curbed.
On the first play from scrimmage (Pruitt won the toss and chose to receive), the UT center or guard missed a blocking assignment and quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was tackled for a huge loss.
Not long after that, the Mountaineers poured in again and Guarantano was thrown down so hard his helmet popped off.
Our QB was being tossed around like a rag doll, I thought. The time machine I was aboard had gone haywire. It had dropped me off in 2017, the year that ended 4-8 overall and winless in the SEC under Butch Jones.
West Virginia’s opening possession started near midfield, making it even easier for Will Grier, its highly touted quarterback. The Vols were fortunate a receiver dropped a TD pass in the end zone and gave up only a field goal.
Grier’s air attack wouldn’t be stopped the second time around and their lead quickly swelled to 10-0.
Tennessee finally slowed them down by playing keep away. Tim Jordan took over running duties when Ty Chandler left the game with a head injury and the Vols put together a 17-play, 78-yard drive that consumed almost nine minutes.
The play of the game, in my book, came on fourth-and-goal at the 1. Pruitt went for it and UT scored. Butch would have kicked a field goal in that situation, much like he did against Oklahoma in 2014.
I couldn’t have been happier with Pruitt’s aggressive call. Right then and there he showed Vol Nation he had what it takes to make a gutty call. The scoring play, a play-action pass, worked to perfection, too.
Despite the awful start, Tennessee had battled back to pull within 10-7 and seize the momentum. It didn’t matter that West Virginia kicked a FG on the last play of the first half to take a 13-7 lead into the dressing room. The Vols were back in the game.
But that “mo” seemed to evaporate during a 90-minute halftime created by lightning delay.
Grier was unstoppable in the second half, throwing four of his five TDs as West Virginia pulled away for a 40-14 victory.
Not many of us expected that kind of outcome going into the game.
We all learned a lot from the opener. The Vols have plenty of work to do on both sides of the ball. And it’s going to take their new coach time to fully load the roster with his players.
I believe we also learned Pruitt’s worth the wait.