KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer said the Volunteers‘ football program is “working through a cultural change” and that he remains confident in first-year coach Jeremy Pruitt.
“I can say with certainty that we’ve got us a heck of a football coach — absolute certainty,” Fulmer said Monday at a Knoxville Quarterback Club luncheon.
Tennessee (2-3, 0-2 SEC) has lost by 26 points in each of its three games against Power Five opponents during its first season under Pruitt, a former Alabama defensive coordinator . Pruitt inherited a Tennessee program that had gone 4-8 last year to set a school single-season record for losses.
Fulmer was selected as athletic director in December to rescue a tumultuous coaching search, which ended a week later with his hiring of Pruitt . Tennessee enters its bye week with an 11-game losing streak against Southeastern Conference opponents, a skid that began in November 2016.
“I’m reminding myself all the time this is a process,” Fulmer said. “It’s not an event. It’s not a one-time thing and everything’s going to change. It’s a process. I see our kids buying in more and more.”
Fulmer noted that Tennessee’s roster suffered from the losses of running back John Kelly, defensive back Rashaan Gaulden and defensive lineman Kahlil McKenzie, who all bypassed their senior seasons to enter the draft and are now on NFL rosters. McKenzie moved from the defensive line to the offensive line after getting drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs.
“No excuses or anything, but three guys left the team last year who probably should have been here,” Fulmer said. “They made pro teams. With all the turmoil and the change and everything, they took advantage of their personal opportunity and left the team.”
Fulmer said Tennessee must add depth across the board, particularly on the offensive line. He also noted the new staff is instituting a “cultural change” that includes making sure everyone’s giving maximum effort at all times.
“To have great effort, first of all, understand what 100 percent effort is,” Fulmer said. “We’re in the process still of making them understand what 100 percent effort is all the time. That’s not been easy.”
Fulmer, a College Football Hall of Famer who coached Tennessee to the 1998 national title, says he believes the Vols probably played their best game Saturday in a 38-12 loss at No. 2 Georgia.
“We have made progress,” Fulmer said. “Are we were we want to be? Not even close. Not even close. But from an attitude and everyday going to practice to be better, we’re getting much, much closer than we were.”
Fulmer also criticized the way some players have capitalized on the NCAA’s new redshirt policy by leaving teams after participating in four games , allowing them to transfer and use the saved year at a new school. Fulmer called it an “unintended consequence” of a policy that enables players to appear in up to four games and still earn a redshirt.
Tennessee hasn’t lost any players to the new policy, but several players have left their teams in the last week. The most notable example is quarterback Kelly Bryant, who left Clemson’s team last week after losing his starting spot to freshman Trevor Lawrence.
“I don’t think anybody ever expected that, or thought of that,” Fulmer said in regard to the transfers. “We’re trying to do something good for the game and good for the kids, and there we are. What I think of it (is) it’s a mess.”