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Vols’ Already-Thin Depth Being Tested After Saturday

Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

RTI contributor Robert Hughes is the author of this article 

During his weekly press conference on Monday, Tennessee head football coach Jeremy Pruitt previewed Saturday’s match-up against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, and much of his time at the podium revolved around the Volunteers’ depth, or lack thereof.

According to Pruitt, a handful of Tennessee players are currently injured, including a couple members of Tennessee’s secondary. Freshman defensive back Warren Burrell turned his ankle last Wednesday and was a game-time decision to play against Georgia. But Pruitt expects the freshman corner — who has been a starter and significant contributor for the Vols — to be ready to play against Mississippi State.

“The kid wanted to play and really came a long way in a two or three day period,” Pruitt said on Monday of Burrell. “He actually didn’t practice on Thursday or Friday. We almost thought he couldn’t play Saturday afternoon after watching him warm up.

“He’s still a little swollen, but I think he’ll be ready this week.”

Fellow defensive back Alontae Taylor is also banged up, and he’s been dealing with a nagging hip flexor injury. The sophomore corner played against Georgia, and he recorded three tackles. Pruitt didn’t mention Taylor’s status heading into Saturday’s contest against Mississippi State.

Other Volunteers on the injury report include defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon and linebacker Roman Harrison. Solomon has been dealing with shoulder and knee pain, and he played only a limited number of snaps against Georgia and left the game after getting shaken up on the field. Pruitt added that Solomon will play against Mississippi State, assuming he is “ready to play” on Saturday.

“Aubrey was playing a really good game, and unfortunately he has been a little banged up with his knee and shoulder, but that’s football right?” Pruitt said. “He’s pushed through most of the year because he has had it. He’ll continue to do that.

“We’ll monitor and see how he is. We won’t put him out there unless he’s ready to play. I think he played 18 snaps in the game (against Georgia), and in those 18, he played really well.”

Roman Harrison, on the other hand, did not play against Georgia. Pruitt is hopeful the freshman linebacker will be ready to go against Mississippi State.

Lastly, Pruitt mentioned offensive lineman Riley Locklear, who suffered a potential concussion Saturday against Georgia. Pruitt said that no official diagnosis was made, but Locklear “got his bell rung.”

Tennessee’s staff is taking precautionary measures with Locklear throughout the week.

All in all, that’s four starters and a key depth piece who are banged up and have their status in question for the Vols’ match-up against Mississippi State. Not only do those injuries affect what the Vols can do during games, but Pruitt was adamant that they’re detrimental to Tennessee’s practices. too.

“When Alontae Taylor gets a hip flexor that he’s had bothering him for a couple of weeks, and then Warren Burrell turns his ankle on Wednesday, and you’ve got guys that play on the kickoff cover team or the punt return team or the punt team and now they’re out, it forces guys like Jauan Jennings or Josh Palmer to have to start doubling up,” Pruitt explained. “That’s where just sheer numbers hurts you a little bit there, and it probably lessens some of the reps that you take at practice.”

Additionally, the Vols’ limited depth has inhibited younger players’ ability to see in-game action.

“There’s several positions where we probably lack depth, and not necessarily just in numbers but just in experience,” Pruitt noted. “We’ve got some younger guys that haven’t had an opportunity to play.”

Players like Roman Harrison, Tyus Fields, Chris Akporghene, and some other freshmen have been hampered by injuries this season, holding them back from seeing the field more or at all. For a team that only has 11 seniors or redshirt seniors that have played this season, relying on younger players is a must. But several potential depth pieces haven’t been able to play up to their full potential.

If the first five weeks of the season are any indication, Tennessee’s young team will have to continue to play through and overcome injuries, regardless of whether or not the team can afford them. That depth will be tested again on Saturday when the Vols host Mississippi State for a noon Eastern kick-off.

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