Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt met with the media on Monday afternoon to discuss Tennessee’s win over Vanderbilt and preview this Saturday’s regular season-finale against No. 5 Texas A&M.
Pruitt discussed playing two quarterbacks, the performance of young players against Vanderbilt, starting Tamarion McDonald over Jaylen McCollough, why Texas A&M runs the football so well and Dee Beckwith’s potential role on the team moving forward.
Here’s everything Pruitt had to say:
“Going back and looking at the Vanderbilt game, I thought offensively we created some explosive plays that really helped during the game. Did a pretty good job protecting the quarterback early in the game. I felt like as the game went, there’s a couple of plays there that we didn’t do as good a job. We had a turnover there in the red area and had a turnover there about the 45-yard line. We really got to eliminate those plays. Both of them came from protection, not busts or anything, just got to be better technically there and get the ball out of our hand. I thought we ran the ball well. I liked the way that Ty (Chandler) and Eric (Gray) and Jabari (Small) and Dee Beckwith all ran the football. The wide receivers created explosive plays there. I thought Cooper Mays, again, continues to improve up front. Jerome Carvin played really well. Glad to see that he’s back in there competing and getting a chance to play.
“Defensively, first of all, we were much better on third down. It’s far and away the best game that we’ve played on third down in a long time. The one drive in the first half, we let them convert a third-and-10. They checked and we probably should have checked there to a different call, we didn’t, and they get a first down and then converted a couple. Then just didn’t get the middle of the field – we got it but didn’t get it properly there – and gave up a touchdown. And then they made a good throw and catch there on Alontae (Taylor) and end up getting a field goal. I thought we affected the quarterback, obviously scored on defense. Bryce Thompson, I think, is the Co-Defensive Player of the Week this week in the SEC. He only played on third down, but he made a big play in the game that kind of got us jumpstarted there on defense.
“If you look at special teams, Paxton Brooks really continues to execute very well in the punting game. He’s done a nice job on kickoffs all year. I thought Toby (Wilson) came in and did a really nice job. We just asked him to kick PATs, but he did a nice job. One thing to me, just disappointing in the game, it’s probably the first game that we’ve had penalties. I think we had nine penalties and they were during the play. Got to make good judgement and finish people off the right way. Thought it was a good effort by our guys. I thought our coaching staff did a nice job getting the guys prepared. Our kids continue to play hard.
“Looking at this week, it’s the last game for this season in Neyland. We have a lot of seniors that this will be their last time. And getting an opportunity to play against one of the best teams in the country. Texas A&M is having a really good year. They’ve got an experienced team, experienced quarterback that’s playing really well. Their offensive line is one of the best in the conference. They’re doing a really nice job protecting the quarterback, creating explosive plays. They’ve been very efficient on third down. I think they’ve ran the ball as well as anybody in our league, both really good running backs. Defensively, playing really good team defense. Keeping the ball in front of them, not giving up a lot of explosive plays, creating negative plays. (They) give you a lot of different looks and then they’ve got really good weapons on special teams. We’ve got a great opportunity on Saturday. I know our guys are looking forward to it. It’s kind of like bowl practice this week. We don’t have school, so we’ll get a lot of opportunity to get prepared for this game and I know our guys are excited about it.”
On how Senior Day will be handled since players can return next season:
“I think there may be some guys that may participate and some guys that may not. I don’t know. We’ve really been focused on improving as a team every single day. When you talk about this kind of unique circumstance we have with guys getting their eligibility back where they can play another year, we’ve kind of treated it like it would be a junior that may be thinking about declaring for the draft. We’re just going to wait until the season is over with, so we’ll have some guys participate and some won’t. It’ll be their choice.”
On if there still playing two quarterbacks because they’re trying to find one or because they want to play two:
“Well, I really think you would rather play one, but we got two guys right now that I think are really competing hard in practice in J.T. (Shrout) and Harrison (Bailey). We are giving them the same amount of reps and I’ve told both of them that we will look at these last three games and give them the same opportunity. I mentioned before we played Florida that J.T.’s shoulder was bothering him a little bit, which he was a gameday decision that day, but he felt like he could play so we got him in there and he played really well. I thought he played well on Saturday too, a couple of drops and he obviously made one mistake there that we need to eliminate, but I thought both guys operated and played pretty well. They are going to continue to improve and we are going to play both of them. I think the way this season is, it is a great opportunity to know what we got. Because of the circumstances early in the season, and not having a lot of scrimmage time, this is a great opportunity for these guys to go out there and get live-game action and see how they are going to do. I think both of them continue to improve every week.”
On splitting reps between quarterbacks in practice this week:
“You’re always going to practice more than one quarterback. You’re always going to practice two and the guy who gets left out is the third guy most of the time. First and second team reps are probably, usually pretty equally split. These guys are going with each group so they’re getting the same opportunities.”
On if sophomore J.T. Shrout and freshman Harrison Bailey feed off each other:
“I think both of them are really good teammates and throw Brian (Maurer) in there. With Brian, we’ve tried to create a little bit of a role with him. He made a really good run down there and kind of turned his ankle a little bit. Just with the quarterback room on Saturday, I thought Jarrett (Guarantano) did a heck of a job on the sideline with Coach (Chris) Weinke and helping those guys. I really like the way that room is. These younger guys are getting opportunities and they are trying to make the most of it. They probably make mistakes that a lot of people don’t see, but they are learning from it. They are gaining confidence. The game is going to slow down for them the more they play. It’s good to see both of these guys go out there and improve each week.”
On if he’s received any assurances from Phillip Fulmer as to whether he’ll be back next season:
“Well we’ve been focusing on our — everyday at practice, the teams that we’re playing. All of that stuff is always at the end of the season. We’ve just been working hard to be the best that we can possibly be.”
On if he is surprised there are three coaching vacancies in the SEC during a pandemic:
“Absolutely, it is unusual circumstances and nobody knows the circumstances around each individual job. I got a lot of respect for all three of those men. Coaching against them, getting to know them coaching in this league, I think they have done a phenomenal job at the places that they have been. It’s really the rough part on this when there is a coaching change. Whether it is somebody leaving or somebody getting another opportunity, the people who suffer are the student-athletes. You build the relationships, you recruit them to come to a certain school. I’ve had it both ways – I’ve been fired before and I’ve had opportunities before. The worst part of it is, in either scenario, the people that you have created these relationships with and built a bond with to come to a certain school – that’s the people that suffer in all this.”
On his assessment of how the younger players performed against Vanderbilt:
“Going through the defense there, Omari Thomas continues to play more and more snaps each game. Tyler Baron has played a lot throughout the season and continues to improve. Tamarion McDonald is a guy that we’ve started playing in the last couple of weeks. He didn’t have hardly any practice leading up, until about halfway through the season. I think those guys have done a really nice job. Keshawn (Key) Lawrence played a little more on Saturday. All of these guys and more have played on special teams, including Doneiko Slaughter. Morven Joseph continues to show flashes. He had a couple of quarterback pressures on Saturday. Offensively, Cooper (Mays) has played the last two weeks at center some. The wide receivers (have played well), whether it’s Jimmy Calloway, Jalin Hyatt or Jimmy Holiday. Jimmy Holiday couldn’t make the trip Saturday. These guys continue to improve, including Malachi Wideman. I thought on Saturday for the first time, he’s played the last two weeks on special teams, but Dee Beckwith got to touch the football. You kind of see a little bit about what kind of abilities he has. I know it’s late in the game, but still. Jabari Small is a guy that I’ve felt like all year has made people miss and done a really nice job. There’s many, many more in this signing that have potential to be really good football players. I’m kind of excited about the offseason, when we get started on that, or maybe if we do go to a bowl game – the opportunity to work some of these guys and get back to having these extra periods, opportunity periods. We really have a young football team. I think there are 50 freshmen and sophomores on our team. Most of them have just experienced two days of spring ball. There’s a lot of development and a lot of growth for these guys. They’re going to have an opportunity to really improve this offseason.”
On the status of junior offensive lineman Cade Mays:
“I think Cade will be day-to-day.”
On what Tennessee was trying to accomplish on the trick play it ran against Vanderbilt:
“I like to put in one or two plays a week. I actually put in two this week and neither one of them worked. We ran a reverse to Kenney Solomon. Kenney Solomon is probably the fastest guy on our team. Probably, if we had gotten one block out there, we would have gained nine or 10 yards, but we only gained one, I think. Then, we put a reverse pass in there, getting in wildcat. We’ve jumped in wildcat a couple of times and we’ve never thrown a pass out of it. They just happened to bring field pressure, so we didn’t get it off and took a sack, so that was my fault because I put the play in and I told Jim (Chaney) to run it at that time. I thought it might work, but it didn’t.”
On if the trick play was for JT Shrout:
“No, it was really for Brian Maurer. It was really for Brian but he was hurt so JT ran it.”
On what he thought about freshman Tamarion McDonald starting in place of sophomore safety Jaylen McCollough:
“Jaylen (McCollough) played his best game of the year. Jaylen has really been fighting a foot injury since the Missouri game. He missed all of fall camp and got released the day we played South Carolina. He’s just been battling this all year, but it was good to see him play well. Tamarion (McDonald) has been playing some on third down during the games in our Dime Rabbit package and playing on special teams. We really like the combination of both of those guys and I feel like they both have a chance to be really good players for us.”
On if playing a Texas A&M team that is looking to make the College Football Playoff impacts the team psychologically:
“I don’t think it’s going to affect us psychologically. I think we’re playing against a good football team that’s very well coached. It’s a great opportunity. We played against a bunch of good football teams this year. It’s the last game in Neyland. I know our kids are excited about playing at home again. So, it’s a great opportunity.”
On what Texas A&M does well when running the football:
“Well to start, their quarterback (Kellen Mond) is very athletic. He’s probably not ran it as much this year as I’ve seen him run it in the past, but he’s a guy that is obviously a threat with his feet. They’ve got really big backs. They don’t go down easy, they’re big up front. They have a lot of experience. They have one of the best tight ends in the conference, whether it’s playing in the run game or the throw game – he’s (Jalen Wydermyer) a really talented young man. They play multiple backs. They wear on teams as the game goes and they’re committed to being a physical football team.”
On freshman running back Dee Beckwith’s potential role moving forward:
“I like him at running back. When we recruited him, we didn’t know exactly where we’d play him, we just knew we wanted him on our team. This guy has a lot of versatility. We started him off at wide receiver, but when he got here, he was a lot bigger than he was when we signed him. He’s a guy that continues to grow and develop, but he’s really good with the ball in his hands. So, putting him back there at running back and trying to create a home for him has been really good for him. I know Coach (Jay) Graham is excited about him and some of the other younger backs and so I feel like that’s where he’ll be.”
On moving junior defensive back Bryce Thompson around in the secondary:
“I think he’s a guy that can play multiple spots. You would like to sign guys that can play multiple spots. It’s easier to create depth and keep your best players on the field and so Bryce is a guy that can do that.”