Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt met with the media following Tennessee’s 34-13 loss to No. 5 Texas A&M to discuss what went wrong on senior day.
Pruitt addressed whether or not Tennessee is under NCAA investigation, why Eric Gray was unavailable, how he would assess this season, why UT’s defense struggled, the performance of Harrison Bailey and J.T. Shrout, and if the Vols would accept a bowl bid.
Here’s everything Pruitt had to say:
“You know first off, just got to kind of tip your hat to Texas A&M. They got a good football team. They were able to run the football, they were able to convert first downs. They kept us from making explosive plays. Eliminated our run game. Eliminated the time of possession, which eliminated a lot of the opportunities for our guys. It just kind of squeezed us out. Couldn’t get off the field on third down and couldn’t create enough momentum offensively. Had negative plays on the three sacks, that hurt us. You just have to give them credit. They have a good football team.
“I think when you look at this season, first thing is just really our administration and our medical staff, just being able to have a season. I said it to the team in there, coming back on June 8, these guys didn’t know what we were getting into. But the courage that they had, just kind of the want to or the will to, to keep keeping on. I thought it said a whole lot about these guys. I think there were a whole lot of lessons for everybody to learn during this whole time.
“Really appreciate our fans coming and supporting us. I know it means a lot to everybody involved in the organization. It’s been an unusual year, but for these guys there is something they can hold their head up about. It looked like when this season started that we weren’t going to have college football. And when the momentum started, I think it says a lot about our players sticking with it and everybody in the SEC. Really kind of keeping college football going.”
Assessing Tennessee’s 2020 season:
“We obviously went 3-7. That’s not what we want to do. It’s hard to compare from one school to another school, the circumstances around this season. I know just talking to some of my peers, there are some weeks it’s been like a normal year and some weeks it hasn’t been. It’s one of the things I think says a lot about the players. We’ve just kind of stuck with it. Like a couple weeks ago, we had a lot of guys who hadn’t practiced in two weeks, but yet they want to play. Things that they didn’t have control over, they hung in there. With our team, we didn’t have many opt-outs. Our guys played hard all the way to the end. So when you look at, it’s kind of like I’m talking to them, you’re looking at what we need to do moving forward. You can kind of look at the team down there (Texas A&M). I thought today, if you look at what Texas A&M did, they were able to run the football. They converted third downs. I think they were 10-for-14 on third down. Created a few explosive plays in there. When we created explosive plays, we scored touchdowns. But as the game went, we didn’t get as many explosive plays and it was tougher for us to score. So just kind of looking at that team and kind of comparing what we have to do to get on their level — something we’re talking about with the players after the game.”
Why sophomore running back Eric Gray didn’t play:
“He was unavailable.”
On the report about Tennessee’s football program being under investigation by the NCAA:
“I hadn’t seen no article or anything like that. Anytime in college football or college athletics, you have typical compliance stuff. That’s all I know.”
If Tennessee would be interested in a bowl game:
“I don’t think that anything would change from our end. We’re preparing like we’re going to be in a bowl. If we’re not, we’re not. That’s the only way we know how to do, prepare to move forward like we were.”
Why Gray wasn’t available:
“You know, the entire year, when it’s come to our guys with injury to COVID or for whatever reasons, we’ve always said they’re unavailable.”
On the performance of quarterbacks Harrison Bailey and J.T. Shrout:
“Harrison does a lot of really good things. One thing that he’s got to get past, he gets stuck a little bit. Sometimes in the throw game, just whether it’s a progression read, it’s a coverage read, whatever it is. There are a a few times, I think everybody sees it, he holds the ball a little bit. Just one of those things that he got past. And the more reps he can get the better he’ll be. Whether it’s throwing the ball away, whether it’s taking a check down. Just one of those things. I thought J.T., probably the same thing.”
On if Eric Gray or any other players were unavailable against A&M because of compliance issues:
“Guys, I’ve already addressed that one time.”
On Texas A&M winning the time of possession:
“I think it’s probably all of the above. We’re 1-for-6 on third down, they’re 10-for-14. They were able to run the football, we were not. Anytime you can extend drives, I mean, just the first third down of the game. It’s third-and-10, we jump offsides. It’s third-and-five, they convert it. Another time, they bolt the back. We don’t peel the back, they get a third down. They got a really good football team with an experienced quarterback. So they’re going to make some plays, right? It’s the one thing that we have to do, and we’ve done this too many times, is we can’t beat ourselves. We’ve got to make the other team beat us. Being 1-for-6 on third down and not establishing the run, you know, is not good. But if you look at it, we create an explosive play and then we take a shot down the sideline. For whatever reason, they don’t call pass interference, so it goes back to second-and-10, right? So you want to get half of it back. We throw and RPO and we throw a bubble for a seven-yard loss. I mean, now it’s third-and-17. It’s hard to convert third-and-17s, right? Or we create a big play offensively by being aggressive and throwing the ball down the field, we’re going to do it again, then we sit there and we take a sack-fumble by holding the ball. Or take another sack. It happened three times, where we created some explosive plays but then we sat there and kind of shot ourselves in the foot so to speak. Not really making them have to defend us on some stuff. If you’re going to be aggressive, sometimes it’s not there. Just take the ball, check it down, throw it away. We’ll play second-and-10.”
On why Tennessee struggled to contain Texas A&M’s running backs out of the backfield:
“There were a couple times that our linebacker had the back out of the backfield. In our defense, we have mechanisms that can get you out of issues, so to speak. So if we’re bringing a pressure and a linebacker has got a back and the back is really chowed out or fixing to get out, we have butch calls, we have spear calls to execute it, right? Now, that sounds good sitting up here. But it’s something that, the more experience you get, you’re able to apply these things. We didn’t do that a couple times.
“One time the back was in there, then he came up late. We got a safety that has got the back. He thinks the back is blocking, he didn’t close to him. He’s going to cut on another wide receiver because he thinks the back is in protection, and the back gets out on third down and they give him the ball and outrun us. So a couple things like that. These guys have always been a team that gets the back out really fast, especially into the boundary. We had some ways to peel them, and when we did it the right way, we were fine.”
On senior outside linebacker Deandre Johnson’s hand-to-the-face penalty:
“I didn’t see it. You got them in third-and-14 or whatever. They convert there on a penalty. I mean, you obviously can’t hit the quarterback late. I didn’t see it. You can’t do it, right?”
On if he is confident he’ll return for another season in 2021:
“Yeah, I think absolutely. If you look over the first two years we were here, right? Where we were at when we got here, I have said it before, from personnel, culture, what we are building, aight? And I get it, 3-7 is not where we want to be, right? There is one thing I can say. I can lay my pillow down on my head every night and know I have done everything I could possibly do to make sure we protected everyone in our program. When looking for a competitive edge, there are lots of things we didn’t know about. If we were going to have a COVID season again, I probably would be a little more prepared to handle it. I get the business. I understand that.
“I look at our football team. We have a lot of really young players. Most of our team will be back. I think it is a very good indication of how they compete every week. These guys don’t quit. They believe in what we are doing and they understand that we are not that far away. A lot of these guys, I think they choose to try to be part of the solution not the problem. If you look at our team last year, we won seven out of our eight games. We barely won most of the games with the exception of UAB, all of them were a one-possession game. A lot of the guys on our team were part of that. They understand there is not much difference in our league. The margin of error is very small. We know that as a staff. We are working hard to improve it.”
On what is preventing Tennessee from closing the gap between teams like Texas A&M:
“Today, what was it, it was third down, right? We were 1-for-6 on third down. They were 10-for-14. You know what I’m saying? They were able to run the football. We weren’t. They got some pressure on the quarterback. We didn’t. You said it right there. What was the score? It was 17-13 or whatever when we got the penalty with a minute and 38 seconds to go in the half. So can’t get that penalty, right? I don’t care if you get close to the quarterback. You avoid the quarterback. It’s third-and-14. They punt the football, we got a chance. At that point in time, we were moving the ball pretty good. Had a pretty good rhythm going. Just those little bitty things. You can look at it every week. There’s not much difference in winning and losing in this league. The first thing you have to do is not beat yourself. You have to make the other team beat you.”