Pruitt O&W

Tennessee head football coach Jeremy Pruitt communicates with players during the Orange and White Game on April 21. 

College football is right around the corner, and for the next couple of weeks every program in the country will be making their final preparations before the regular season kicks off in fall camp.

Tennessee is no exception to this practice, as Aug. 3 marks the first official day of fall camp for the Vols.

On Thursday, head coach Jeremy Pruitt and select assistant coaches spoke to the media about the upcoming camp. There are a few storylines that fans of Tennessee football should follow as fall camp unfolds.

Returning players

Tennessee will start fall camp with plenty of returning players that were not available in the spring.

Perhaps the most important of them all is sophomore offensive lineman Trey Smith, who announced his return earlier this week in an interview with ESPN’s Chris Low. Smith had been missing since February due to blood clots in his lungs, and it’s vital for Tennessee as a whole that their lone preseason All-American selection will return to the field.

“Trey is going to participate in everything we do, except non-contact,” Pruitt said. “He’ll be released probably Aug. 19 or 20, something around that date.”

Along the offensive line, as well, senior Chance Hall has been cleared to practice after battling a recurring knee injury. His return is also huge for Tennessee, as he brings leadership and experience to an offensive line that sorely needs it.

Staying on offense, wide receiver Jauan Jennings will practice for the first time since he was removed from the team last season by interim head coach Brady Hoke. He was reinstated by Pruitt but spent most of the spring injured. His return will bolster a young receiving core.

The defense is not without key returners. Senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. will be full go to start practice after an off-field incident occurred that left him hospitalized earlier this year.

At linebacker, Darrin Kirkland Jr., who almost transferred this summer, will be full-go after battling a lingering shoulder injury. Daniel Bituli will also be healthy after having his knee and shoulder cleaned.

The quarterback situation

Most consider the quarterback competition to be a two-pony race between redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano and graduate transfer Keller Chryst.

However, Pruitt insists this is not the case.

“We’ll be repping four guys there,” Pruitt said. “They’ll all get the same opportunity. It might be three days into fall camp, it might be six weeks into the season.”

The other two in question are Will McBride and true freshman JT Shrout.

McBride played in limited time last season while Guarantano was battling a minor ankle injury, and even started against Missouri. In his time playing, McBride completed just 17 of his 40 passes for 152 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Shrout has yet to play a down of college football and is the wildcard in this situation. The expectation is a redshirt year for the young quarterback.

While Chryst is a pro-style quarterback fundamentally, which is an ideal fit for Tennessee’s new offense under first year coordinator Tyson Helton, Guarantano is arguably more athletic, and hs more experience at Tennessee.

For Pruitt, one thing stands out in a starting quarterback.

“To me the most important thing is just, when we get the ball, what are we doing with it?” Pruitt said. “It’s taking your team, and being able to move the ball. Being productive.”

The impact of the new strength program

Craig Fitzgerald took over Tennessee’s strength program when Pruitt brought his new staff in after a stint in the NFL as the Houston Texans’ strength coach, and his impact can be seen already.

Multiple players have added muscle weight in the offseason, some gaining 15 to 20 pounds, while others have cut to healthier weights.

A great strength program cannot be understated; it helps prevent injuries on gameday, as well as obviously helping players gain strength, speed, and athleticism.

It will be interesting to see exactly how different the players look after a whole summer in the weight room lifting and conditioning, especially those that have battled nagging injuries almost their whole career.

“I was just up there looking at some of the numbers,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Rumph said. “It’s unbelievable. Guys are changing their bodies.”

Tennessee’s players needed to get bigger and stronger to compete in the SEC, and it seems they have done just that.

Asst. Sports Editor

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