KNOXVILLE — In his constant effort to convince his players what is their biggest obstacle for success, Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt always asks them one question.
“Did we do something, or was it the other team?”
The answer, offensive lineman Drew Richmond said, never changes.
“Every time we reflect, it’s us,” Richmond said. “That’s what we have to get better at.”
The Vols (2-3, 0-2 SEC) will face No. 21-ranked Auburn (4-2, 1-2) at Jordan-Hare Stadium today with the benefit of extra time to prepare because of their off week.
They spent much of that time working on those self-inflicted mistakes they say have held them back in their three losses.
That includes tackling, blocking fundamentals and block protection.
It seems like areas in which most of the players should be sound, but Pruitt said the newness of his program and the lack of chemistry brought on by many key players not participating in off-season activities has held them back.
“We went back to the ‘A, B, C’s’ that you do during spring ball and fall camp, which we need,” Pruitt said.
“We had a lot of guys who didn’t get to do that during camp. We have guys that are inexperienced, and we have guys that have experience that maybe aren’t doing it at the highest level.”
Tennessee has yet to play a competitive game against a Power 5 team, which Richmond said is frustrating for the players.
The Vols recognize that they have a long way to go to compete in the SEC, but they also believe they have a disadvantage that some of the other teams don’t have.
They’re still trying to get used to one another and Pruitt’s coaching style.
Richmond described it as a search for “ultimate confidence.”
The Vols know what they have to do, and they’re doing it every day.
They believe they’ll get over the hump eventually. In the meantime, they’re tired of hearing about things like their 10-game conference losing streak and the fact they have not defeated a West Division team in their last 15 tries.
“We’re hungry,” Richmond said.
“We want to win bad. This is crazy how much we go through, what we go through, what we do on a daily basis to fall short. I guess that’s the thing about life is your resiliency. How are you going to come back?
“I don’t think we have a team full of quitters. I just don’t think that. Every weekend is an opportunity for us to show how good we are. We have to put in the work.”
One of the most notable ways the players have proven they’re going to put in the work came last month when many of them showed up to watch film on a day off following their 47-21 home loss to Florida.
That effort did not pay off the following week when the Vols lost to Georgia, 38-12, and the fundamentals practiced during their off week may not pay off against Auburn.
The Vols understand their issues cannot be fixed quickly, but they believe the process can be expedited if they win a game they’re not expected to. This weekend is their next chance to do that.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for this team to go down there and try to prove something,” Richmond said.
“We can prove something no matter what. They’re a very good team, but I feel like we’re a good team, too.”