Coming off of a 29-26 overtime loss to BYU last Saturday, Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt talked to the media on Monday.
The Vols, who have now lost back-to-back games to open the 2019 season, are set to play host to FCS foe Chattanooga on Saturday and are in desperate need of a win before SEC play begins next week at Florida.
Here are the takeaways from head coach Jeremy Pruitt’s weekly press conference:
Younger players getting experience, making impact
Pruitt hasn’t shied away from the fact that Tennessee has featured a plethora of inexperience at positions on both sides of the ball.
On Monday, Pruitt reiterated that they haven’t had much of a choice in that regard, but that it will pay off as the season progresses.
“These guys are going to continue to improve,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got lots of young guys in our program that maybe weren’t ready for the first game, they may not be ready by the second game. We’ll continue to play some young guys and we’ll play more and more as the year goes.”
Although the end result of their first two games left much to be desired by the second-year head coach, Pruitt has been impressed with the newcomers’ performances thus far.
“All of these guys that we signed in this last year’s class all have the potential to be really good football players, but every one of them were better football players in their senior year in high school than their freshman year in high school. That’ll be the same way at Tennessee; they’ll continue to grow, develop, improve as football players as we go.”
Backup quarterback battle rages on
There was a moment in the first quarter on Saturday during Tennessee’s first drive when redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s shoe came off. After the cleat was tossed towards the Vols’ sideline by a BYU player, true freshman quarterback Brian Maurer immediately strapped on his helmet and headed for the field.
He wasn’t supposed to do that because he’s not the backup according to Pruitt, but he had to admit that he liked the initiative.
“Well, he’s not the backup first of all,” Pruitt said. “He was a guy that saw the quarterback come out so he ran on the field, which I kind of like. So, we didn’t tell anybody to go in or come out.”
So does that mean that redshirt sophomore JT Shrout is the ‘next man up’ if Guarantano has to leave the game? Pruitt didn’t exactly say that Shrout was, either.
“Well (picking a backup) has been important the entire time,” Pruitt said. “The opportunity has not presented itself. We’ve got to create a backup quarterback, and you know there’s no doubt if you’ve been around our program the last six months, who the best quarterback on our team is.”
Improvement on offensive line
After giving up four sacks to Georgia State the week prior, Tennessee’s offensive line showed much more improvement against BYU.
It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it was good enough to win the game because it allowed a more consistent rushing attack and gave Guarantano time to throw the ball, all-be-it late and off target at times.
That improvement did not go unnoticed by Pruitt, although he still believes the group is not where it needs to be.
“We ran the ball better offensively,” Pruitt said. “But if you look at it, we had one offesnive lineman that we graded a winner, so we have a long way to go to continue to work hard to develop there.”
Daniel Bituli Update
Due to a procedure, the Vols’ defense had to do without senior linebacker Daniel Bituli in the first two games, although there was some optimism that he could return for the BYU contest.
Pruitt said on Monday that he was hopeful Bituli could see the field in some capacity against Chattanooga.
“Hopefully, Daniel (Bituli) will be able to take some reps this week,” Pruitt said. “Like I said, he was close last week. Daniel had a really good spring, and he was having a really good fall camp, but when he comes back, because he’s missed sixteen days of practice, it’s not going to be like where he left off.”
In his absence, the Tennessee coaching staff has had to look to create depth at the position by plugging in inexperienced players at the position.
“Saturday we dressed two scholarship tailbacks that were going to be able to play and four inside linebackers,” Pruitt said. “So we’re very thin at certain positions, and we’ve been that way. We’ve had to bounce guys back and forth.”