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VOL. 43 | NO. 35 | Friday, August 30, 2019

Vols set priorities for season, making a bowl, beating Vandy

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Ty Chandler is UT's leading returning rusher.

-- Tennessee Athletics

Reaching a bowl game and beating Vanderbilt used to be foregone conclusions for the Tennessee football team.

They have now become benchmarks of progress.

Expectations have changed around Knoxville with the program in the process of a major rebuild. The Vols finished 5-7 last season, including a second straight last-place finish in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.

Head coach Jeremy Pruitt enters Year 2 at the helm with the Vols trying to climb back to respectability in the SEC and nationally.

Pruitt has revamped his coaching staff, highlighted by new coordinators Jim Chaney on offense and Derrick Ansley on defense.

Pruitt is trying to change the culture with upgrades in nearly every facet of the program, from strength and conditioning to recruiting to nutrition.

Although there is no quick fix after years of coaching buyouts and false hope of a turnaround, the Vols want to display positive signs of momentum in 2019.

They open the season on Aug. 31 by hosting Georgia State at 3:30 p.m. ET at Neyland Stadium.

“This is a team that has to get to six wins and has to play in the postseason. Anything short of six wins will be a disappointing year,” says SEC Network analyst Chris Doering.

“They were close last year, and one reason they didn’t get into a bowl game was not beating Vanderbilt. That is certainly something Tennessee fans aren’t used to, and they need to get back to that.”

Tennessee has aspirations of much more, but will have to navigate the always-challenging SEC. The Vols have shown signs of improvement with a stronger, faster and more athletic team this season. But there are still many holes to fill and inexperience to overcome.

They have the most important position set with redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano returning to start at quarterback.

Guarantano is surrounded by talented skill players, led by receivers Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer. Ty Chandler is Tennessee’s leading returning rusher, and true freshman tailback Eric Gray earned plaudits in preseason camp.

But there is a reason people say SEC games are won in the trenches, and the Vols have major question marks up front on both sides.

The offensive line has been a constant source of consternation the last few seasons with a rotating cast of players trying to find success. The experimentation continued throughout fall camp.

Entering the final week of preparation for the season opener, the Vols were still waiting to see if Trey Smith can take the field. The All-American junior tackle missed the final five games last season after blood clots were found in his lungs, an ongoing serious medical issue for the former five-star out of Jackson, Tennessee.

The Vols signed two freshmen five-star tackles in Wayna Morris and Darnell Wright, but the transition to college at that position is typically harder than skill positions.

Darrell Taylor is a leader on the defense for the Vols.

-- Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“I think we’ll probably play eight to 10 guys. I really do. I think there are going to be that many guys that deserve to play,” Pruitt acknowledges. “I think we’re going to need to play that many guys, so we’ll keep working them that way. It’s good for competition.

“Nobody’s going to get complacent.”

Tennessee’s returning offensive linemen realize the perception of the unit isn’t good. They can try to block out the noise, but acknowledge it has become a burden.

“Tired of losing. It’s really embarrassing to go out there and just – everybody blames it on us,” junior Marcus Tatum says. “Usually, it is our fault most of the time, (and we) just want to make a difference. Don’t want to be the whole excuse why we are losing and why this university is falling apart.”

Tennessee has no returning starters on the defensive line. Their most experienced player was lost for the season three weeks ago when Emmit Gooden tore his right anterior cruciate ligament.

The coaches have focused on teaching fundamentals because most of the defensive linemen are “still in elementary school” as far as learning what to do on the field, according to Pruitt.

“You do see potential,” Tennessee defensive line coach Tracy Rocker adds. “It’s like a rollercoaster. It’ll start and you’ll think, `Oh, man, we’re going to have a great one.’ Then it will come down and then it goes back up. The biggest thing is we’re trying to work to be consistent.”

Outside linebacker Darrell Taylor anchors Tennessee’s defense. The junior had eight sacks last season, the highest total of any returning SEC player. The young secondary has potential with sophomore cornerbacks Bryce Thompson, who was suspended last week after being arrested on a domestic assault charge in Knoxville, and Alontae Taylor gaining a baptism by fire as true freshmen.

Despite a losing record and no bowl game last season, Doering saw signs of progress.

“I was very impressed by the respect Pruitt gained from the team and some of the accountability and discipline he instilled,” Doering says. “You never know how new coaches are going to be received, and I thought a majority of the guys bought in very well. Despite some talent difficulties, the team really fought hard and competed in every game to the very end. That wasn’t always the case the year before.”

Tennessee’s weaker nonconference schedule should provide the Vols with a good chance to reach six wins and become bowl eligible. The Vols begin the season with three straight home games, including a primetime showdown with BYU on Sept. 7 that will have historical significance. It will mark the first time alcohol will be served at Neyland Stadium.

The SEC chancellors and school presidents voted in May to give conference members the option of selling beer and wine in public areas during sporting events.

Beer will be sold throughout Neyland Stadium at concession stands and kiosks, excluding areas near the student section. Wine will be sold in the Tennessee Terrace and East and West Clubs.

A maximum of two alcoholic beverages may be purchased per transaction, and alcohol sales will end after the third quarter. Fans won’t be allowed to take alcoholic beverages out of the stadium.

Whereas some fans would likely have been drinking to drown their sorrows in the recent past, they’ll be hoping to raise a glass in celebration in the future.

Senior linebacker Daniel Bituli has only one more season left to make happier memories. Despite a recent knee procedure that could keep him out of the home opener, the Nashville native feels an even greater sense of urgency to help turn the program around every time he steps on the field.

“I want to leave here setting a standard, the Coach Pruitt way, the standard that these coaches have brought to this team,” Bituli says.

“Some hard-fought guys, guys that are going to go in and work each and every day. That’s just the standard I want to leave to these guys.”

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