UT players happy to kick off bare-bones season

Friday, September 25, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 39
By Rhiannon Potkey

Fans in the stands? No like this scene from the Taxslayer Gator Bowl. Tennessee will open its home schedule with 25% of seats filled and no cheerleaders or band allowed on the field.

-- Photo By David Rosenblum | Icon Sportswire

Nobody knows how many games will actually be played. Nobody knows how many players will be available. Nobody knows how many spectators will be allowed to watch at any particular game.

Nobody knows much of anything for certain in a season unlike any other in the history of college football.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a major scramble for all conferences, resulting in varying decisions on schedules, start dates and protocol.

The SEC shifted to a 10-game conference-only season that kicks off this weekend.

Tennessee opens against South Carolina on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. CDT. The Vols’ home opener is slated for Oct. 3 against Missouri at Neyland Stadium at 11 a.m. CDT.

But don’t expect the usual pageantry that has become a staple of college football this year.

Capacity at Neyland Stadium will be limited to align with state and local social distancing guidelines for public gatherings. For the home opener, Neyland will be at approximately 25% of capacity (a little more than 25,000) with no band or cheerleaders allowed on the field.

Capacity restrictions could change as the season progresses, based on statewide virus data and evolving recommendations of public health officials.

But the Vols aren’t complaining. Compared to the alternative of not having any games, a restricted season is a luxury during a pandemic.

In addition to its six SEC Eastern Division games, Tennessee is playing Alabama, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Auburn. The Texas A&M and Auburn games were added once the SEC decided to play a conference-only schedule.

“From not knowing if we’d play in April to now actually having a schedule, I think it’s very exciting,” Tennessee offensive lineman Brandon Kennedy says.

“We love to play and we’re ready to play as a team. We’ve been working hard this offseason with the new protocol and everything.”

COVID-19 will be the most intimidating opponent Tennessee encounters this season. The looming chance of infection causes daily stress and worry for coaches and players alike.

Any positive tests could sideline more than a quarter of the roster in one fell swoop because of contact tracing. Tennessee was missing around 50 players from one practice this month.

The Vols are being tested three times a week, including rapid testing the day before games.

“Our numbers have really gone down across our campus,’’ Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt says. “We have a lot of guys back.

“Again, we’ve not had that many COVID cases, but we have been caught up in contact tracing. Most of our guys are back now, and we’ve got to continue to make sure that they really defend themselves.

“We can’t be put in a situation that we can get it or be put in contact tracing.”

After an extremely shaky start, Tennessee ended last season on a six-game win streak. The pandemic truncated spring practice, but the Vols are hoping the momentum they generated had lasting ramifications.

The team’s greatest strength is expected to be the offensive line, anchored by senior right tackle Trey Smith. The 6-foot-6, 330-pound All-American could have left early for the NFL or opted out of the season for health reasons, but Smith chose to remain a Vol to the end.

He’s been a leader on and off the field, spearheading recent marches in Knoxville to highlight social injustice and racism, and appearing on ESPN’s College GameDay to discuss the topics in a players’ roundtable.

Joining Smith as returners on the offensive line are left tackle Wanya Morris, right tackle Darnell Wright and Kennedy at center.

Georgia transfer Cade Mays, a Knoxville native, had his waiver to play immediately approved by the NCAA last week following an appeal. Mays still needs a waiver from the SEC to play this season, which had yet to be decided by Sept. 18.

“We have a really great offensive room dynamic right now,” Smith explains. “A lot of players that want to get better, a lot of players that want to be great, a lot of players that want to dominate and push the ball in the SEC, and that’s what we’re going to have to do at the end of the day.’’

The line will be protecting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. The redshirt senior has endured a bumpy career behind center for UT, but will have the same offensive coordinator in place for the second straight season in Jim Chaney.

“His resolve to be a starting, winning quarterback at Tennessee has never been questioned,” Chaney points out.

“He’s just going on the field and performing at a high level consistently. That’s what we are trying to get done this year with Jarrett. I’m pleased with him. I like the kid a lot.”

Vying as the backup behind Guarantano are Brian Maurer and JT Shrout. Highly-touted true freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey’s progress has been hindered by the lack of reps available because of the pandemic’s consequences.

Senior Ty Chandler and sophomore Eric Gray are expected to carry the bulk of the load once again in the backfield. The duo combined for 1,194 yards rushing and seven touchdowns last season.

“I’m just grateful to be able to be in the room with him,” Chandler says of Gray. “He has a great skill set that he brings to the game, and he’s even taught me things. We talk about stuff all the time, and we just feed off each other. I’m grateful to be able to go out there and compete with him.”

At wide receiver, the Vols are trying to compensate for the loss of Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway. Looking to fill the void are Brandon Johnson, Josh Palmer and Velus Jones Jr., a graduate transfer from the University of Southern California. There is a potential for Tennessee’s younger receivers to break out once they gain more experience.

Sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o is the stalwart on the defensive side of the ball for the Vols. One of the top freshmen in the country last season, To’o To’o finished with 72 tackles, including five tackles for loss. Junior Bryce Thompson returns to lead the secondary, while the Vols have to replace a lot of talent on the defensive line.

Senior kicker Brent Cimaglia provides the Vols with a steady leader on special teams. Cimaglia was 23 of 27 in field goal attempts last season, including two from 50-plus yards.

Knowing which lineups will actually be available to take the field each Saturday is the question nobody can answer.

Like all teams, the Vols are operating in day-to-day mode while praying all the Covid-19 tests come back negative. There is a good chance a few of their games will be postponed as college navigates a bumpy season amid a pandemic.

Just making it to the end could be considered a victory this season.

“It’s teamwork at the end of the day,” Smith notes. “It’s all teamwork, it’s on all of us as players to make sure we don’t jeopardize ourselves and this program by going out and doing certain things that puts it in jeopardy.”