KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt saw a lot of juice at practice on Wednesday afternoon at Haslam Field as the Vols continued preparation for in-state opponent, Chattanooga.
The Mocs will travel to Neyland Stadium for a Noon ET kick (SEC Network) on Saturday and Pruitt is hoping his team continues to improve this week following three solid practices.
“Guys continue to work hard and improve,” Pruitt said. “(There was) a lot of juice out there today which is good to see. You see our leadership, see guys responding to adversity which is exactly what I expected with these guys. Just looking at them, I’ve said all along that I really like this group of guys. I like our team. They have really molded together to become a pretty close group, and that’s a good thing because right now that’s what they need to do and we’re working hard.”
The Vols have started the 2019 season with a pair of losses, but there have been several bright spots and noticeable improvements from Week 1 to Week 2.
The challenge is to keep improving moving forward.
“Every week we have the same expectations and that is to be at our best,” Pruitt said. “The previous game will have no outcome on the next game. We have 60 minutes on Saturday to be at our best. That is one thing that we need to do because we have yet to do that.”
Pruitt and the coaching staff have relied on several freshmen and newcomers throughout the early part of the season. A pair of bright spots on the defense have been true freshmen Warren Burrell, at cornerback, and Henry To’o To’o, at linebacker. The first-year pair has started both games this season.
To’o To’o is tied for the team lead in tackles, while Burrell’s production doesn’t show up in the box score as much. However, Pruitt called the Suwannee, Ga., freshman one of Tennessee’s top defenders through the first two games.
“I think Warren has been one of our better players on defense,” Pruitt said. “He’s tackled well, he’s been in the right spots, he’s cut off some guys in the back end. He’s an instinctive guy that needs to develop play strength.”
Another freshman making an impact is running back Eric Gray. The Memphis, Tenn., native has rushed for 106 yards on 24 carries through his first two career games, while showing he can be a threat as a receiver. He ranks second on the team with eight receptions for 56 yards. And he’s also outstanding in the classroom.
“I think Eric Gray has done a really nice job since he has been here. He is very mature,” Pruitt said. “He made all A’s and one B in the spring semester. He is a really good student. He does everything that we ask him to do. He has very good leadership skills. What you see on Saturdays is what we see on Monday through Friday from him. That isn’t a surprise. The guy comes to work every single day.”
The Vols have played 10 true freshmen so far this season and Pruitt is pleased with the class as building blocks for the future.
“There are a lot of guys in our freshman class that are similar to Eric and work hard like that,” Pruitt said. “He is at a position where it is only him and Ty, where they are the only two scholarship running backs. He is getting plenty of opportunities.”
Fils-aime, Jordan Adding Depth to Running Back Room
Last week junior Ty Chandler and Gray were the only two scholarship running backs to play against BYU. Pruitt expects senior Carlin Fils-aime back soon and junior Tim Jordan back for UTC.
Pruitt said Fils-aime is “probably one week away” after practicing on scout team last week, but he expects Jordan to be ready to go after practicing each day this week.
Fils-aime has rushed for 309 yards and five touchdowns in his career, while Jordan has logged 580 rushing yards and three scores, including a standout 118-yard game in the 2018 season opener.
Jeremy Pruitt Press Conference Transcript | Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019
“We’ve had three good days again this week. Guys continue to work hard and improve. A lot of juice out there today which is good to see. You see our leadership, see guys responding to adversity which is exactly what I expected with these guys. Just looking at them, I’ve said all along that I really like this group of guys. I like our team. They have really molded together to become a pretty close group, and that’s a good thing because right now that’s what they need to do and we’re working hard.
“Got UTC this week. I said earlier, very familiar with their coaching staff, coached against them. Guys on our staff have coached with them and against them, so they do a fantastic job. We have lots of things we can improve on this week and we’ve got to do that. We’ve got to do that every week, so our guys are working hard to do that.”
On DB Bryce Thompson being reinstated to practice from suspension:
“He’s been away from the team for three weeks. He’s been in school here. There’s still lots of things that have to go on here with his situation. He obviously made a mistake, but he needs to be around the football team. He’s not practiced in three weeks, so he needs to practice. It’s good for him.”
On Bryce Thompson’s status Saturday:
“Well it’s hard to play when you haven’t been practicing, right? It’s hard to get in shape, so we’ve got to build up [to that].”
On the plan for Bryce Thompson and if the decision to reinstate him involved multiple people:
“We’re not going to discuss the plan. From privacy issues, we can’t really discuss that. When you talk about something like this you don’t just make a decision out on your own. You have to consult with people within our university and obviously we have.”
On how he is emphasizing turnovers in practice:
“We obviously haven’t gotten any. The big thing to me is that you have to recruit guys that are used to handling the ball. To me, it seems like it gets contagious. The simplest thing is when every play ends the defense needs to have the ball. So, you are fighting to get the ball all the way to the end, that’s kind of our motto. We haven’t seen the dividends on gameday, but that’s how we practice, so we have got to take the practice part to the game. We have had some opportunities to pick a few balls off and haven’t, but we have got to get some balls off people.”
On the play of the safeties so far this season:
“I wouldn’t say anywhere on our football team has played great the first two weeks, there’s lots of improvement everywhere. We’ve missed a few tackles in two games, not as many as I previously thought when I looked at the stats. There’re three things I look at: missed tackles, mental errors and loafs. So not as many missed tackles, too many mental errors – which some of that comes with when you are playing in the first couple weeks, you don’t know who they are – it helps to have experience so when you see something you can play things based off concepts. But we have got to improve all over our football team, and yes, we have got some young guys in the secondary that are getting closer. So, they have got to continue to work hard, the problem is that we have had to move a couple of these guys around to a couple of positions just for lack of depth, but it will help them in the long run.”
On Warren Burrell and where he would like to see him improve:
“I think Warren has been one of our better players on defense. He gave up a few passes last week, but we were playing off cover three, that’s the weakness of the defense. He’s tackled well, he’s been in the right spots, he’s got some guys cut off in the back end. He’s an instinctive guy that needs to develop play strength. I mean he’s 172 pounds, he’s got a nice frame on him but he’s going to have to work hard during the season to maintain strength and have a little more play strength, have a little heavier hands, and really kind of take care of his body so he can survive the season.”
On Baylen Buchanan and his progression with his injuries:
“He does everything in practice, he just doesn’t hit. Baylen is a guy who can play a lot of positions. He is one of our better players on defense. I’m glad we discovered this injury to protect him. It is unfortunate for him, but he is making some progress and he is rehabbing. He is working hard. If he happened to be able to play in a couple of weeks, he would be ready physically. We are just staying with the status quo and he goes out and works everyday with no contact.”
On his expectations heading into the Chattanooga game:
“Every week we have the same expectations and that is to be at our best. The previous game will have no outcome on the next game. We have 60 minutes on Saturday to be at our best. That is one thing that we need to do because we have yet to do that.”
On the impact of Eric Gray having instant success on the recruiting trail:
“I think Eric Gray has done a really nice job since he has been here. He is very mature. He made all A’s and one B in the spring semester. He is a really good student. He does everything that we ask him to do. He has very good leadership skills. What you see on Saturdays is what we see on Monday through Friday from him. That isn’t a surprise. The guy comes to work every single day. There are a lot of guys in our freshman class that are similar to Eric and work hard like that. He is at a position where it is only him and Ty, where they are the only two scholarship running backs. He is getting plenty of opportunities.”
On Jeremy Banks playing more moving forward:
“Jeremy controls a lot of that. He always wants to play on Saturdays, but he has to do what it takes Monday through Friday to earn the opportunity to play on Saturday. He’s a guy that has really good potential, he’s a really good competitor, plays with really good toughness and just has to be a little more consistent to get those opportunities.”
On Trey Smith’s health and play so far:
“Trey played better this week than he did in the previous week and I’m sure he’ll continue to do that. Our plan has been great, there’s been no issues there. One thing is that we’ve probably changed our practice routine a little bit on Thursdays to give him an opportunity to do a little more. It’s probably good for all of our players, because we’re really thin at some positions, just to give them a chance to get their legs back underneath them a little bit. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, we’ve gotten after it pretty good for the first three weeks of the season. We’ll continue with this plan. It gives him an opportunity to take more reps on Thursday.”
On the team’s running back depth:
“Carlin (Fils-aime) has actually taken some reps this week with the one and twos. He’s probably one more week away, but last week he worked on the scout team, so he’s just kind of been building himself up and it’s just been building up confidence. He needs to get banged on a little bit. A running back that hasn’t carried the ball in a while is a dangerous deal there for us in terms of putting it on the ground, so he needs to get knocked around some with the ball in his hand. Tim (Jordan) has practiced the last three days and has improved every single day, so I would expect him to be ready to go by Saturday.”