The anticipation of game week reached a summertime-high on Saturday night.
Florida had just skated by Miami, giving Vol fans hope for September’s clash with the Gators, and kick-off against Georgia State was just a week away. But when Tennessee fans woke up on Sunday morning, the optimism and anticipation surrounding Week 1 had been slashed.
Sophomore cornerback Bryce Thompson was charged with domestic assault following an incident on Saturday night in Knoxville.
According to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, Thompson and an unidentified woman were arguing at the Stokley Hall Dorms on UT’s campus. Thompson was allegedly overheard threatening the woman, and a witness claims he threatened to “shoot up the school” as well.
Jeremy Pruitt met with the media on Monday morning for his weekly press conference before the week’s game. In the midst of discussing Georgia State — Tennessee’s Week 1 opponent — the second-year head coach addressed Thompson’s situation, the Panthers, what he’s looking for from his team in the season-opener, and provided an injury update.
Pruitt released a statement on Monday morning announcing that Thompson had been suspended indefinitely from the team following his incident over the weekend.
“Bryce Thompson is suspended indefinitely while the process continues,” Pruitt said via a release. “We hold our student-athletes to a high standard. The safety of all students is our first priority here at Tennessee.”
A reporter followed up on the situation during Pruitt’s press conference, asking if the head coach who recruited Thompson thought the young man was a danger to students on the campus. Pruitt referenced his statement from earlier in the morning.
“I released a statement today, and that’s all we’re going to talk about for right now,” Pruitt said. “We’re going to focus on this game and, for us, that’s what we can focus on.”
During Friday’s press conference following Tennessee’s last practice of fall camp, Pruitt announced that senior linebacker Daniel Bituli had to undergo a minor procedure on his knee earlier in fall camp, and he will be out 10-17 days. Pruitt also added that there’s a chance Bituli could be available for the Vols’ season opener against Georgia State in just eight days.
On Monday, he updated Bituli’s status.
“I think Daniel (Bituli), it’ll be pushing for him to be ready this week,” Pruitt said. “He’s not going to be able to practice today (Monday). He’s right there, but we’ll make sure we do what’s in the best interest of him.”
As for junior offensive lineman Trey Smith, the plan remains the same it has been all summer.
“Our doctors and medical folks will continue to work hard to try and find a way to allow him the opportunity to play,” Pruitt said. “He has had a chance to participate in a couple of practices this camp and we’ll just kind of stay the course there and it’ll really be a game-time decision with that.”
Smith has been at every practice during fall camp, but he has yet to be cleared for full contact — at least during the portion of practice open to the media. He’s been held out of contact drills since blood clots resurfaced before Tennessee’s game against South Carolina in October. He was held out the remainder of the 2018 season after starting the first seven games of the season.
Although Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon isn’t dealing with an injury, his status remains in limbo along with Bituli and Smith. Much has been made the last week of Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh potentially interfering with Solomon being eligible.
As of Monday, nothing had changed.
“We haven’t heard anything yet, and we’re going to continue to practice like he’s going to play,” Pruitt said when addressing Solomon situation. “All our guys take a lot of reps in practice and we’re going to continue to do that to create some depth on both sides of the ball.”
Who Comes in After Jarrett Guarantano?
When Tennessee and Georgia State kick off at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU this Saturday, redshirt junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano will receive the starting nod — as expected.
In an ideal world, the Vols will be up multiple scores in the third quarter, allowing either redshirt freshman JT Shrout or true freshman Brian Maurer to come in and receive reps for the first time in their career. Aside from winning, the backup quarterback situation is the most crucial aspect of Saturday’s game as Tennessee looks to build depth behind Guarantano. Due to past injuries, history tells us that the Vols will turn to the backup at some point during the season. But who will it be?
“That is one of the places that we don’t have an answer yet,” Pruitt explained.”Nobody has really separated themselves from the other guys, so we have repped both guys with the twos, and we will continue to do that.
“This might be a two-week deal, or it may be a six-week deal. You do have to decide on who to put in, so that is probably going to be dictated on who has performed the best this week until somebody has separated themselves there.”
As is the case at quarterback, the Vols are also seeking answers in the secondary following Thompson’s suspension — particularly the depth.
Thompson was slated to be a starter at corner opposite of fellow sophomore Alontae Taylor. That spot will now belong to freshman Warren Burrell, who has had as impressive of a fall camp as anybody on the roster.
With Thompson out, Burrell and Taylor are expected to be the starting corners while junior Shawn Shamburger appears to be receiving the starting nod at the nickel position.
“We’ve worked a lot of different combinations in the secondary,” Pruitt said. “We’ve got a bunch of guys there.
“We have a bunch of different combinations, and we’ll continue to work those combinations. We’ll probably play all those guys. They all deserve to play, so we’ll probably play them all.”
Pruitt mentioned Kenneth George Jr. as a player who will be thrown into the fire. But the name that was talked about more on the depth chart that was provided to the media on Monday morning was true freshman Jerrod Means. The Georgia native was listed as the backup corner behind Taylor.
Means arrived on campus this summer as a wide receiver, but he moved to the secondary midway through the summer and began fall practice at corner. Following the position change and Thompson’s legal situation, Means will be thrown into the fire against Georgia State.
“You need to be fast if you’re going to play corner on our team, and (Jerrod) is a fast guy,” Pruitt said. “He didn’t play a lot in high school, but just talking to him, we asked him if he could help us for a year to provide some depth.
“He would obviously like to play wide receiver, and he will do that one day here at Tennessee. He is a team guy. He’s worked hard on what to do in the back end. He got a little banged up in camp and had a few days that he didn’t get to participate, but he’s had a good camp and has a great attitude. He is a guy that will play on special teams and a guy that I think has a bright future here at Tennessee.”
Scouting the Opponent
Tennessee opened last season with a marquee match-up with a top-25 West Virginia team. This year, though, the Vols open up with a team who will be a massive underdog in Neyland Stadium.
Georgia State won just two games last season. The Panthers went 2-10 on the season and 1-7 in Sun Belt play under former South Carolina interim head coach Shawn Elliott.
“You look at our opponent this week in Georgia State, a team very similar to us,” Pruitt said. “They have lots of players coming back on both sides of the ball.
“Shawn Elliott is a guy that I’ve coached against over the years when he was at South Carolina – he was a fantastic offensive line coach. When you watch this team play, you see the same things that I’ve always seen going against his offensive line. They’re tough, they’re smart, they play hard, they’re very well coached, and they do lots of things on offense.”
This year, Elliott returns for his third season along with dual-threat quarterback Dan Ellington leading the way. Ellington, a senior and All-Sun Belt honoree, led Georgia State in passing (2,119 yards) and rushing (625 yards) a season ago. Following a standout junior college career in which he was an All-American, his five interceptions last season were the fewest by a qualifying Georgia State quarterback in program history.
“Their quarterback is coming back, and he was also the leading rusher last year, so they have a dual threat guy that can present some issues there,” Pruitt said. “Tra Barnett, the running back, is a guy that has breakaway speed that can score at any point in time.”
Barnett was second on the team in rushing behind Ellington in 2018. The senior rushed for 551 yards and seven touchdowns on 109 carries, averaging 5.1 yards a carry. As a group, Georgia State rushed for a program-best 171.4 yards per game.
Georgia State also returns its leading receiver in Cornelius McCoy. Last season, he was second on the team in receiving yards (495). McCoy caught 35 passes and a touchdown
“On defense, the leading tackler last year is back, Ed Curney,” Pruitt said of the Panthers defense. “Up front, they have two guys that when you watch the tape, just stick out to me — No. 52 (Dontae Wilson) and No. 55 (Terry Thomas), they’re all over the field.
“And they’re good in the back end as well. They have their specialists back, so it will be a tremendous challenge for us.”
In 2018, Thomas was an All-Sun Belt honoree. Churney led the team with 81 tackles to go along with 4.5 tackles for a loss. As for the secondary, the group returns every letter-winner from last season.
Tennessee won its only previous match-up with Georgia State. The Vols beat the Panthers 51-13 in Neyland Stadium on Sept. 8, 2012. Tyler Bray recorded his eighth career games of at least 300 passing yards that afternoon, finishing 18-of-20 for 310 yards and four touchdowns.