KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Three days out from Tennessee’s SEC home opener, head coach Jeremy Pruitt liked what he saw from his team during Wednesday’s practice and stressed the opportunity that awaits the Vols against No. 3 Georgia at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“We had a pretty lively practice out there today,” Pruitt said. “It’s good to see our guys continue to work hard … We continue to get some guys back, which is good for our football team.
“You look at last week in the off week, there were lots of things I felt we had to improve on and I felt our guys have worked hard to take some of that stuff from last week back into this week. So, we had a very positive practice.”
The Vols will look to carry some of that momentum into Saturday’s matchup, which will mark the third straight season that the Vols have faced a Georgia team ranked in the top 10. Last season in Athens, Tennessee battled back from down 24 points to cut Georgia’s lead to 12 in the fourth quarter.
The Vols and Bulldogs have split the last four meetings overall, as well as each winning one of the last two meetings in Knoxville.
“We have a fantastic challenge on Saturday, our guys are looking forward to it,” Pruitt said. “You want to play teams like this, guys came to Tennessee to play in games like this. It’s a great opportunity for our football team.”
Vols Up to the Challenge in the Trenches
Through four games, Pruitt has liked what he’s seen from the Vols offensive line, led by redshirt senior Brandon Kennedy.
Kennedy has started all four of Tennessee’s games this season at center after missing the final 11 games of the 2018 season due to injury.
“If you look at our offensive line, it starts with Brandon Kennedy,” Pruitt said. “For Brandon, this is the first time that he has been this healthy in his college career, so he has had an opportunity to practice every day.
“Our guys up front have continued to work hard and compete. I felt like our best game as an offensive line since I have been here was the Florida game.”
On the defensive side, Pruitt has seen weekly progression from a unit that did not return any starters from the 2018 campaign. Tennessee’s matchup with Georgia will pit the unit against the SEC’s top offense in rushing yards per game.
“To me I feel like our defensive line has really improved in playing the run, and this week they have a tremendous challenge because I think these guys run the football probably better than anybody in college,” Pruitt said.
Taylor Looks to Continue Stellar Play Against Bulldogs
Redshirt senior linebacker Darrell Taylor had a breakout performance at Georgia last season, totaling three sacks and two forced fumbles. It was Taylor’s first of two games with three or more sacks during the 2018 season.
“(Darrell) is a guy that has really good talent, he has really improved as a player,” Pruitt said. “But he needs, like everyone else in our program, needs to raise his level of play like we all do.”
Taylor also forced a fumble against the Bulldogs in the 2017 meeting in Knoxville. So far this season, Taylor has registered 16 tackles and one sack.
Jeremy Pruitt Press Conference Transcript – Oct. 2, 2019
“You know we had a pretty lively practice out there today. It’s good to see our guys continue to work hard. I thought especially this week our quarterbacks, all three of them, have thrown the ball extremely well. They have done a much better job handling the offense. We continue to get some guys back which is good for our football team. You look at last week in the off week, there were lots of things I felt we had to improve on, and I felt our guys have worked hard to take some of that stuff from last week back into this week. So, very positive practice. Guys continue to do well in the kicking game with our kickers. Rested Brent (Cimaglia) today, he kicked a lot of balls last week and get his leg back. Having Bryce (Thompson) back changes things up in the return game. It’s good to see him out there getting an opportunity to do some of that again. He was a guy that probably would have been our starting punt returner at the beginning of the season, so we are trying to get him out there ready to go.”
On what he wants to achieve on Saturday:
“We want to achieve the same thing we do every week. We want to be at our best as a coaching staff, as players, anybody that touches our organization. There’s very few opportunities when you talk about how much time you put into it. When you start in January in off-season conditioning and through spring practice and summer conditioning, fall camp, you are guaranteed 12 opportunities to show what you’ve done and how hard you’ve worked through the off-season. We have a fantastic challenge on Saturday. Our guys are looking forward to it. You want to play teams like this. Guys came to Tennessee to play in games like this. It’s a great opportunity for our football team.”
On the quarterbacks responding to practice:
“With the two younger guys, it’s the fifth week of the year, really six with the off week. You get to work a little bit of a game plan last week, so it’s a little longer prep for one team. It gives them another opportunity. For Jarrett (Guarantano), it’s another opportunity. He’s had really good practices the entire year. He’s looking forward for a chance to improve himself just like we all are in our program. When you look at our body of work that we see every single day; how hard everybody is working to be at their best, and we have not been there. The measuring stick is on Saturdays. That’s why we do it, that’s why we got in the business, that’s why we are here. This will be a great opportunity for us.”
On Darnell Wright and his position changes:
“We have a different group almost every day because Trey doesn’t practice. We move guys around. Jahmir (Johnson) has been out. He is getting back. We have had to shuffle some guys around. We have had some younger guys [play]. Chris Akporoghene is back. Just figuring out who the best guys are that give us the best opportunity to win. Some guys have to play multiple spots. Darnell is a guy that can do that.”
On creating opportunities for your top players:
“You’re goal as a coach is to play everyone who can play at a winning level. I think you can look at Georgia’s defense and see that they have lots of experience on that side of the ball. They have created some packages to give their guys opportunity. On the defensive side, we try to give people opportunities to play. We did that the first game of the year. We had a lot of guys close to each other in competition. Some guys had played here, some hadn’t. You give a guy an opportunity to contribute to the football team. As the season goes, you might realize that is a guy that we don’t need to take off of the field. There have been times over the years we have played certain linebackers and a different guy will play in the nickel or another guy plays in dime. We get in the ball game and more of a certain personnel and we have to swap guys out. It changes from week to week.”
On what he thinks has held back the offensive line in terms of run blocking:
“If you look at our offensive line, it starts with Brandon Kennedy. For Brandon, this is the first time that he has been this healthy in his college career, so he has had an opportunity to practice every day. Offensive line is a developmental position, the only way to get good at it is to do it over and over again. You’ll see guys on teams that didn’t play their freshman, sophomore, sometimes even junior year, then their senior year they are really good SEC football players. Everybody develops kind of at a different pace. Some guys maybe had more opportunity when they were in high school, whether it was because who was coaching them or the resources around them to be ready and be prepared for college. Maybe it was because they came in midyear as opposed to during the summer and they get fifteen extra practices. So, our guys up front have continued to work hard and compete. I felt like our best game as an offensive line since I have been here was the Florida game, and we scored three points, so we have to improve up there and stay on guys. We’ve gotten a bunch of penalties, hands to the face when we gained eight yards on a run. We throw the ball down the field early in the game, break some tackles, and for the first time I see white shirts running down the field trying to pepper people like you are supposed to. Now we can’t hit them after the whistle but there were lots of glimpses there in that game of how far we have come from the first game we have coached in. So, our guys will continue to work, they are young, they are going to improve and get better. We have competition there now.”
On what the focus has been for the defensive line:
“To me I feel like our defensive line has really improved in playing the run, and this week they have a tremendous challenge because I think these guys run the football probably better than anybody in college. They have experience up there. Andrew Thomas is a great player, they have Solomon Kindley, Trey Hill, Cade Mays, Isaiah Wilson, Ben Cleveland, Justin Shaffer. That’s seven guys, and they probably have some more. They have some big men up there who have played together. They have really good running backs, so it will be a tremendous challenge for us. One thing that we have to do, that we have struggled with this year is converting on play action passes. Going from power to speed and converting pass rush. We have to improve there, and a lot of that is awareness. Every great team has telltale signs, and it’s something that you have to be aware of as a defensive player. Whether it’s the location of the running back, the location of the tight end, who’s in the game, stances of offensive lineman. All these things that can help you pre-snap. Our guys are improving in that area and they will continue to improve the more experience that the get.”
On Darrell Taylor and the pass rush overall:
“To play winning football and to be a really good football player, you have to do the details. You have to create the right habits every week, and sometimes when things don’t go your way in pass rush, sometimes it can be because the ball gets out, maybe some teams are seven-man protecting, maybe they’re chipping. Darrell (Taylor), along with everybody up front, we have to improve our pass rush – and again, I go back to the details of being a master of your position, understanding what the other team is trying to do to you, having some pre-snap clues. Staying the course a little bit. He’s a guy that has really good talent, he has really improved as a player, but he needs, like everyone else in our program, needs to raise his level of play like we all do.”
On the health and depth at the cornerback position:
“Anytime you compete at practice the way we do and as much live stuff, you’re going to get guys a little dinged up. We can’t sit here as a football team and say, ‘hey, we’ve got to worry about staying healthy.’ We’ve got to be smart with how we practice, we’ve got to stay off the ground. Unfortunately, for both of these guys, jumping for balls, got a little tweak in an ankle or something, but I think both of them will be fine for Saturday. It’s part of it and if we have to play with Kenneth George Jr. or Shawn Shamburger or Kenney Solomon, those guys will be ready to play.”
On the familiarity between opponents during conference play:
“Most everybody in this league are so familiar with each other, you kind of have a catalog. The guys that have coached under the same defensive family or offensive family, that’s the way it is now all across this league. People get opportunities and people move and staffs change up, everybody pulls something from the last place they’ve been. The way technology is today, you can walk in and flip on any college game or any pro game and have the film cut up so you can see what’s the explosive runs, what’s the explosive passes and who’s giving up the sacks. There is so much information that’s out there, so it’s very easy to take from somebody else and kind of make it your own a little bit. They want to call what our players know, you want your players to play fast, but at the same time you want to create a few more wrinkles. You look at their quarterback, you don’t trick this guy. I’ve coached against him for two years and I think we might have got him two times in 160 plays, where we felt like he didn’t have them in the right play. That’s a pretty good batting percentage for him. There is very few out there that I’ve seen like that. It’s one of the reasons they are successful on offense.”