Eric Gray- Florida at Tennessee

Dec 5, 2020; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Volunteers running back Eric Gray (3) runs for a touchdown against the Florida Gators during the first half at Neyland Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The climate of Tennessee football has changed drastically in the past few weeks. The firing of head coach Jeremy Pruitt and several other staff members for Level I recruiting violations prompted reactions among current student athletes and recruits alike in relation to their status with the team and university come next fall.

Here’s where things stand.

The transfer portal

On Wednesday Jan. 20, a few days removed from Pruitt’s firing, four Vols’ starters made the decision to enter the portal. This development followed a players meeting led by interim head coach Kevin Steele and former athletic director Phillip Fulmer, as well as other members of the athletic department.

These departures include linebackers Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch, breakout running back Eric Gray and one of Pruitt’s first signings of the 2018 class in offensive lineman Jahmir Johnson. To’o To’o and Crouch combined for 125 tackles across the 19 games they were featured in this past season, as fellow sophomore Eric Gray rushed for 772 yards and four touchdowns in nine games.

Later in the same week, freshman defensive back Key Lawrence entered the transfer portal as well, raising the number to five players departing the team in a week’s time. Lawrence totaled eight tackles and one pass deflection in his three games as a Vol this season.

This week, J.J. Peterson also announced his intentions to transfer, becoming the fifth linebacker to depart from the team. Two position coaches dismissed from the university, Shelton Felton and Brian Niedermeyer, coached linebackers in their time at Tennessee and face serious recruiting violations in conjunction with Pruitt’s tenure.

These six join a list of more than a dozen who have entered the portal since the end of the season, including starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and outside linebacker DeAndre Johnson.

Gray and Lawrence join former Tennessee lineman Wanya Morris to Oklahoma while Guarantano will play at Washington State and Johnson transferred home to play at Miami.

These departures, as well as those lost to the NFL draft such as defensive back Bryce Thompson and all-SEC offensive lineman Trey Smith, will prove a stout challenge to the new coaching administration. In total, of the 22 players that started week one against South Carolina, 12 remain on the Volunteers football team.

Recruitment moves

The news forced many high school recruits set to arrive on campus in 2021 to reconsider their future plans with the Vols. As of a week after the announcement of the firing of the head coach and several staff members, five commits have expressed their intentions to step away from considering the University of Tennessee.

Among these hesitations is the top signee of the 2021 class in defensive end Dylan Brooks, who asked for a release from the Tennessee football program stating, “It was just the best thing for me” in a text message to reporters.

The Vols also lost commitments from four-star wide receiver Jordan Mosley, three-star offensive tackle Colby Smith and three-star defensive end Jimmy Scott, all of whom stated their intentions on their personal social media accounts.

Auburn transfer Big Kat Bryant, a defensive end who labeled Tennessee as his transfer destination a week prior to Pruitt’s firing, later deleted his commitment post in response to the personnel decision. No intentions have since been stated.

Who’s staying?

These developments did not come as a surprise to the university, which vowed to make future retention a priority this offseason.

“As many challenges as we have, also look at (them) as opportunities,” former Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer said. “We’ve got a great brand name. We will work diligently to keep our players here and welcome the new ones … then continue the recruiting process that’s going on now”

Plenty of current players took to social media following the exodus of starters to the transfer portal. Defensive end Darel Middleton and defensive back Trevon Flowers were among many who announced their intent to stay with the team on their personal accounts.

Former five-star offensive tackle Darnell Wright also announced his intention to stay with the program. This decision came after many media outlets reported the former ESPN 300 recruit would be joining fellow offensive linemen Wanya Morris and Jahmir Johnson in transferring from the program.

Many signees recruited by Pruitt’s administration have also announced their intentions to stay and compete next fall, such as JUCO running back Tiyon Evans and four star quarterback Kaidon Salter.

At this point, the Volunteers will take any good news they can get.

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