Pruitt Opens Coaching Tenure Against WVU

Holgorsen looks back at first game as head coach

FILE - In this April 21, 2018, file photo, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt signals his players during the Orange and White spring game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee is counting on the championship background of new coach Pruitt to help the program bounce back from one of its worst seasons ever. (C.B. Schmelter /Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP, File)

MORGANTOWN — It’s been eight years, but West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen remembers his first game as head coach and can relate to what University of Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt will be going through when his Volunteers look to knock off the No. 17 ranked Mountaineers when the two teams meet at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

“I remember it very vividly, honestly, for a couple of different reasons,” Holgorsen quipped during Monday’s Big 12 Media Teleconference.

The opponent was in-state rival Marshall which was being coached by former WVU player and assistant coach Doc Holliday.

“We had lightning,” Holgorsen said. “We had rainstorms. We had a couple of two-hour delays. I was having so much damned fun coaching in my first game that I had an opportunity to do it for about 12 straight hours.”

WVU went on to win that shortened contest by a 34-13 margin over the Thundering Herd en route to a 10-3 overall mark, a Big East (5-2) championship and a 70-33 victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

“I had some older guys on the team, and they kind of looked at me and said, ‘Are you nervous?’ I said, ‘No, man, I don’t get nervous about these things.’ There’s a little bit of anxiety that goes on before the game but not nervousness, so to speak.

“They all said, ‘Coach, we’ve got your back and we’re going to go out there and win you your first football game,’ which they did, but the unique part of it was it was only a three-quarter game.”

Pruitt, who took over for former WVU assistant Butch Jones, who went 34-27 in his five seasons in Knoxville, would take those same events if they allowed him and his staff to start off their first season with a victory over the Mountaineers.

“Our team is excited about getting an opportunity to play,” Pruitt said. “The beauty of this time of year is nobody has anything against them. Everybody has the same record. There is a lot of excitement to compete and play.”

To accomplish that feat, however, the Vols will have to significantly improve on a defense that was ranked 83rd in the FBS in scoring (29.1 ppg) and an offense that posted 19.8 points per outing (117th).

Conversely, West Virginia’s offense — when senior quarterback Will Grier was healthy — ranked No. 22 nationally, scoring an average of 34.5 points per game. Which it had to in order to overcome a defense which surrendered 31.5 points per game and finished 90th in the FBS.

“We’re going to have our hands full slowing these guys down,” Pruitt said. “On defense they give you different looks. They create a lot of negative plays and have been opportunistic in terms of getting turnovers.

“We’ve got to take care of the football and stay in positive down-and-distance situations. We have to execute and block the different looks they give you.”

But, just who will be leading UT’s offensive attack won’t be known until the Vols take to the field for their first offensive series.

“As with every position, (the quarterback) is fluid,” Pruitt said. “I think with all the positions we have, we still have competition. The best teams I’ve been involved with, there are guys who may start the first game but don’t start the fifth game or the eighth game, or a guy who didn’t even play in the first game but might be the MVP of the last game.

“Football is a developmental game. There are some guys who have been in the program longer than others who understand what we’re trying to get done. You also have guys who may have more ability but don’t understand just yet.”

Junior Jarrett Guarantano, who went 1-5 as the Vols’ starter in 2017, has apparently moved ahead of Stanford University transfer Keller Chryst for the starting job against the Mountaineers, although both will play.

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