When Tennessee released their roster on Monday, five days prior to their 2019 season opener versus Georgia State, there was something everyone noticed immediately — the capital ‘O’ and ‘R’ that followed nearly every name.
Jeremy Pruitt hasn’t been shy about the fact that the Vols will be relying on a heavy load of inexperience this season, but according to the second-year head coach, Tennessee plans to play a lot of players on Saturday, regardless of experience.
“We’ve had a really good camp,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got a lot of new guys, a lot of unknowns. We’ve got a lot of guys that came here because they felt like they got an opportunity to play early. A lot of them have put themselves in a position to do that.”
The areas where the Vols will feature the most players and freshman will be along the offensive and defensive fronts. The current ‘two-deep’ depth chart for Saturday has four underclassmen slated to see playing time on the offensive line.
That should come as no surprise; the offensive line has been a liability for Tennessee for the last two seasons after being depleted by injuries and departures, but two five-stars from their most recent recruiting class could contribute early.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Pruitt said about playing so many young players. “We’re going to be simple on both sides of the ball and give our kids a chance to play fast and try to win each play itself. We’re going to take it one play at a time and have fun doing it.”
For now, junior Trey Smith is listed among those who could see playing time in the opener, but Pruitt stated that the team is working with doctors to try and get Smith back on the field after being sidelined for most of the last two seasons due to a blood clot issue.
“Everyone is always going to ask about Trey Smith,” Pruitt said. “The plan has not changed with Trey. Our doctors and medical folks will continue to work hard and find a way to allow him the opportunity to play. It’s been a game-time decision with that.”
The defensive front for the Vols has a plethora of depth but still lacks in players with in-game experience. The unit took a hit early in fall camp with the season-ending injury of Emmit Gooden and the with the status of Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon still in limbo. Tennessee will rely on a few newcomers in the rotation to help fill the void.
“Those guys have really worked hard and improved from where they were in spring ball and where they’re at today,” Pruitt said. “It’s really been positive, and they’ve got to continue to do that every week. We have an inexperienced football team when you look two-deep, three-deep, so we’re going to continue to improve this season.”
Defensive back was set to be one of Tennessee’s more proven units with sophomore tandem Alonte Taylor and Bryce Thompson coming back after successful freshman seasons in 2018. However, Pruitt announced the indefinite suspension of Thompson on Monday, and his name is not listed on the current depth chart.
Senior defensive back Baylen Buchanon will also miss an indefinite amount of time due to a spinal issue that was discovered earlier this month. Despite that, Pruitt is confident the abilities of Taylor and the players he will have available on Saturday.
“We’ve worked a lot of different combinations in the secondary,” Pruitt said. “Alonte Taylor has played star and corner, (freshman) Warren Burrell has played corner, Shawn Shamburger has played star and corner. We’ve got a bunch of guys there.”
While quarterback in an area where Tennessee is set in redshirt-junior Jarrett Gurantano, there is not yet a firm backup ready to take his place should he go down with an injury. Pruitt says there hasn’t been enough separation between redshirt-freshman J.T. Shrout and true freshman Brian Mauer to determine one.
“That is one of the places where we don’t have an answer yet,” Pruitt said. “Nobody has really separated themselves from the other guys, so we have repped both guys the two’s, and we’ll continue to do that. That could be a two-week deal or a six-week deal.
“You do have to decide who to put in, so that is probably going to be dictated by who has performed the best this week.”