UT players discuss pandemic, football and more

Brandon Kennedy, Henry To'o To'o, Eric Gray talk Tennessee Vols
UT Football practice
UT Football practice(Tennessee Athletic Communications)
Published: Aug. 20, 2020 at 10:18 PM EDT
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - With fall semester classes underway and two preseason practices in the books, Tennessee football standouts senior center Brandon Kennedy, sophomore running back Eric Gray and sophomore linebacker Henry To’o To’o met with members of the media on Thursday afternoon.

The Volunteers’ first two workouts have been in helmets and shorts, and they are scheduled to practice in shells on Friday and Saturday to close the first week of the preseason. Classes began on the UT campus Wednesday. Kennedy helps anchor one of the elite offensive line units in the nation that paved the way for a spectacular freshman year for Gray. Gray rushed for 539 yards and five touchdowns, including 366 yards in the final two contests of the year en route to TaxSlayer Gator Bowl MVP honors.In 2020, Gray will be under the tutelage of former Vol standout Jay Graham, who returns to Rocky Top as running backs coach.”Coach Graham is an unbelievably great guy,” Gray said. “You can see the experience that he has coaching running backs. He’s taught me so much in just the short time that he’s been here, being able to read a front, read a defense, safety rotation and different things like that which I never really thought about.”

To’o To’o is coming off a freshman All-America campaign that featured 72 tackles and 12 starts. He praised the program’s sports medicine staff led by Jason McVeigh, Jeronimo Boche and Dr. Chris Klenck during the squad’s transition back to football.”It’s a blessing to be able to have such a great medical staff that supports us, that wants the best for us, that keeps us updated every single day on what’s going on and how this virus can spread and how we can prevent it from reaching our team,” To’o To’o said. “We feel really fortunate to go out there and play some ball.”Below are quotes from Thursday’s media availability.

Brandon Kennedy, R-Sr., OLOn how it’s been starting fall camp during the pandemic…

On why he chose to return for his sixth year… “Me personally, I’m all in. I’m ready to play. I feel like I’ve worked hard for this senior year and coming back for this sixth year. I’m all in. I know the risks and the challenges, but I feel like we’ve been educated and they do a great job of helping us. Four or five months ago we didn’t know too much about (COVID-19), but now that we’ve gathered more information every day, our medical staff is doing a great job. “I think me coming back, was the opportunity to play another year. Just being able to come back, play another year, get more film on tape and also help the team be successful is what went into it. Also to be able to get another degree. I will be graduating in December. I’m excited and glad I did. I’m not looking back.”

On if he expected the journey of his collegiate career to be underlined by two national championship programs, a season-ending injury and earning two master’s degrees… “No, looking back I couldn’t imagine. To think that I would go through all that and be here now in unprecedented times. It’s been challenging, but it’s also been exciting. A lot of this stuff you can’t say has happened before. It’s been great and I’ve been taking it all in stride.”

On how the team adjusted to new protocols because of the pandemic… “When we first got back there were a lot of questions as to how we would do things. As we got into it, guys got more comfortable. We’re to the point now where we’re able to know what the protocol is, know the guidelines and we’re able to follow it. It allows us to continue on like normal, but we have different protocols we follow as far as social distancing, wearing masks in public and at practice.”

On Cade Mays “Cade’s a great guy. He’s worked hard. The decision is not up to us, but we fully support him in everything that he deos and his decision. We’re happy for him and we’re here working with him.”

On how much he’s had to adjust to new protocols because of the coronavirus… “Not too much because in the spring most of my classes were online so it’s not as big of an adjustment for me. The biggest thing I’ve focused on this off season is recovery and taking care of my body. I feel like I’ve take in to another level and took the next step this off season. Jeronimo (Boche) and the training staff have done a great job giving me a routine and things to be able to recover from practice and keep my body in tip-top shape.”

On playing an all-SEC schedule…

On his relationship with the quarterbacks…”Me and Jarrett (Guarantano) have a great relationship. We worked hard this off season and we watched a lot of film together in the spring about just different opponents and things we could’ve improved on last year. Along with him and also the other quarterbacks, we just started watching more film and just trying to see what we can improve on as far as whether it’s communication or technique, snaps, anything.”

On seeing other conferences cancel their football season and fall sport seasons …”Seeing that, your first reaction is kind of sad for those guys and the conference, but I know that the Commissioner and people around our conference will make the best decision for us possible. We’re excited whether we play or not. We want to play.”

On players using their voices…”The players have a voice and it’s great for players to speak up now. I think the time during the past four or five months, with all the things that have happened, have allowed players to use their voice in a positive way. I feel like they’re doing a good job with it.”

On what he wants to do after he finishes playing football… “Life after football I want to go into sports psychology. I want to become a licensed sports psychologist and either work with NFL or college teams just to give back and help athletes. I’m working on and (agriculture) leadership degree, so within that we’re talking about different servant leadership principles and how to communicate and kind of bring guys along. That’s been helping a lot with me as an older guy and having to deal with a lot of younger guys and kind of help them along it’s served me well.”

On playing in Neyland in December …”I think it would be real special to be in that atmosphere and play one last time at Neyland Stadium. I think it would be very exciting. Hopefully, we’ll be able to have fans and what not, but if we don’t I’ll still be excited to play one last time. It’s very special to me at Neyland Stadium. You’ll have a little more (excitement), but this year, having an all-SEC schedule, you have to approach every game the same. Every game is almost NFL-like, so you have to be able to come with your A-game every game this season.”

Henry To’o To’o, So., LBOn being out west in California for three months during quarantine and then being able to come back to Knoxville in June … “These are crazy times, and these are probably not times we want to be in, but for me it was a good thing because I was able to be around my family a lot more. Being so far away from my family, I was able to spend some time with them, watch my little brothers grow up – I worked them out and I worked my sisters out a lot more – so I kind of grew a relationship with my family that I’m truly thankful for during this time of quarantine. Being out there and then coming back to Knoxville and being able to see my team after about three months, I missed them, so being able to see the boys and work out with the boys again, I was happy. I was juiced.”

On how fortunate they feel to be able to practice and hopefully have a season …

On some of the things that help the players feel safe in and around the facility … “For a lot of players, and I can count myself in this, if we were to be able to go home, who knows what we would be doing. We wouldn’t be on a time schedule, we wouldn’t be responsible to go to things and be held accountable to be able to do things on our own, so we would probably be out doing things, traveling, probably doing something with our family that we shouldn’t be doing here. So, being able to be here, having the medical staff and being able to have practice, knowing that your teammates are counting on you to do the right thing day-in day-out. A lot of people would go home and not have a safe environment to be in. You guys have seen that all throughout Twitter and social media that people want to be here. They want to be here, and it feels like a safe environment and I can speak for myself that I feel safe here. I feel that the medical staff has done a tremendous job to be able to ensure my safety and I trust them with all that I’ve got.”

On how normal this week has felt and how stressful and different the last few weeks and months have been …

On where he feels like he and the team are mentally and physically from a football standpoint right now … “Mentally wise, we did a great job as a team, as a defensive and offensive unit to be able to hold Zoom meetings while we were all in quarantine. So, we were on Zoom getting the same film work in, holding each other accountable, making sure everybody’s camera was on, making sure that everybody was answering questions. We did a tremendous job. So, mentally wise, I feel like we all did a great job. We came in and got on Day-1 installing and we rode from there. “Physically wise, I feel like I did a good job being able to come back physically (in shape) and I think the team did a good job too. They came back stronger. We came back working out with A.J. (Artis), and we did a really good job as a team being conditioned and being physically strong.”

On what it’s been like without Daniel Bituli and building his chemistry with the other linebackers in the room … “Me and Daniel Bituli had a brotherhood bond, but that was last year. It’s time to focus on this year. Me and Q (Quavaris Crouch), and it’s not only just me and Q, it’s our whole entire LB room. We all came together as one. We all know that we have to fill in the shoes of Daniel Bituli, so we all kind of put in that extra work, that extra time. So, it’s not necessarily only two people, it’s the entire LB room. The guys that we have in there are doing a tremendous job of kind of picking up the light that Bituli left off with us, so now it’s on to us to be able to carry that torch.”

On if he’s putting himself in more of a leadership role… “Yes sir. I feel like I could do a lot more. I feel like since I’ve seen Bituli, I’ve seen the way that he did things on and off the field, he did everything right. I just want to be able to do what he did. He showed me the ways and I just want to exceed his expectations from now.”

On working with Brian Niedermeyer “He is a real juiced guy. He is excited about every single thing we do. It’s a blessing to have him recruit me and have him as a coach. He hasn’t changed. He is still the same person that I know and met since day one. He is a really smart guy, knows his schemes and knows how a linebacker is supposed to play. Being able to have Niedermeyer there has been a true blessing. One thing I love about him is he brings that juice every single day. He wants the best out of us every single day, whether it’s watching film or on the field running to the ball. It’s a true blessing to have a coach like him.”

On who he sees starting at inside linebacker this season … That’s not my question to answer. I have no right to say who I want right beside me. We’re all players and we’re all here to play football. Our inside linebacking core has done a great job for us, from the older guys to the younger guys. We’ve all done a tremendous job playing and getting in that extra work. We were all here until about nine o’clock yesterday watching film as a unit. That’s not something for me to say anything about, but I know whoever is in that game or in practice, they are going to give it their all. They are going to know what they are doing.”

On knowing Pac-12 players and what is their mood like after having their season postponed … “A lot of the people in the Pac-12 that I know are pretty bummed, to be honest with you. I have a lot of family in the Pac-12 and being able to talk to them, they also wanted a season and they wanted to play. That wasn’t their call to make. They are probably working their butts off right now so when it is their time to play, they can excel.”

On the depth inside the linebacker room … “We have a lot of depth. We have guys like Jeremy Banks, Bryson Eason, Martavius French, Aaron Beasley, Solon Page – guys like that to be able to incorporate into the game. We all have our different skill sets. We all have our unique types of plays that we can do, and we all know our strengths. Just to be able to have guys like that in the room makes us stronger as a unit. We know that whoever is in the game, whoever is out there is going to do what they need to do.”

On Jeremy Banks’ return to the team …Jeremy Banks is my guy, that’s my brother right there. We spend a lot of time together and he has grown and we’re here to support him. Everything he does, we’re here to support him and help him grow. Jeremy has done a great job and he is a changed man. On the field he is helping us tremendously. It is a true blessing to have him out there with us.”

On how the team is handling COVID-19 since having some players test positive after the July 4 weekend … “We knew that coming back there were going to be some guys that tested positive. We told each other after the Fourth of July, be aware, be responsible and act like pros. Be a pro. You want to play ball, so if you’re going to go out there and ruin that for not only yourself but the entire team, it’s not the smartest thing to do. We made a promise to each other that we’re going to do the right thing and I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that.”

Eric Gray, So., RBOn if this year feels like an extension of freshman year learning to adapt … “Oh yeah definitely, for sure these are new circumstances that we are facing. Just trying to stay positive, bonding together with my teammates and just like last year; the upperclassmen helped me get through it and it’s the same thing this year. With Ty (Chandler) and the coaches helping me get through it this year, everybody is really bonding together to get over COVID and to just keep our mind jugging ahead to the season.”

On what helped with the summer meetings … “We wanted to make sure we learned everything and we were perfect. Coach (Jay) Graham harps on being perfect with shakedowns and running the ball. Those freshmen came in, they’re very talented and they came in and are pushing me and Ty (Chandler) every day. Me and Ty getting together and teaching them what we know. Ty (Chandler) teaching me what he knows, he’s got a little more experience. Going at it every day, getting with the offensive line and going over run schemes, going over pass schemes so we are perfect so they can be perfect with that deep offensive line and we can just be perfect and do everything right.”

On this first week with Coach Jay Graham and his focal point for his game … “Coach (Jay) Graham is an unbelievably great guy. You can see the experience that he has coaching running backs. He’s taught me so much in just the short time that he’s been here; being able to read a front, read a defense, safety rotation and different things like that which I never really thought about. Drawing on the boards. He’s really great with details, he really harps on the details; making sure you’re aligned correctly, you hit the hole correctly, you press the linebackers correctly. Things like that which are going to help you get to the next level, I think he’s really great at that. On the field, he’s a great guy. When you’re not sure if you mess up on something, he can correct you right away so you can go back and do it again the right away. My focal point for my game is to really take it to the next level. My freshman year was a pretty good year but I really want to take it to another level for my sophomore year. One thing is being able to break away from defenders and really be a game-changer this year.”

On how challenging it would be to get a 1,000-yard season in a 10-game SEC slate … “We have to take care of our bodies for sure for that to happen and it is going to be a great thing to do. If you can go out there and play 10 SEC games and put 1,000 yards up, who knows you can put 2,000 yards up, you can go out there and prove that you are that back playing 10 SEC games. No one has ever done that, and you would be the first. That’s something special.”

On playing in limited-capacity stadiums …

On running back Tee Hodge “He has come in and been unbelievably professional. He takes the game very seriously. He watches a lot of film, he studies me and Ty (Chandler), he studies in the meeting rooms and he really wants to do well. I think he’s really going to do well. He’s done a lot in a short span of being here in the summer. He’s been doing great after two days watching him on the field. He’s adapting well.”

On moving past last season’s accolades on to this season … “Well for me it all started in high school my 10th-grade year when I got a lot of accolades. Everyone said, ‘you’re young, you’re a 10th-grader. Now, you have to go do it again as an 11th-grader.’ If you want to be a great player, you have to be consistent and that’s what I look at. Last season was a good season for me, but it wasn’t my best season. My best season is yet to come and working hard for that, wanting to be one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Wanting to be that, you have to know you have to be consistent all the time. You have to be consistent and you have to be perfect all the time. Last year was last year, but you have to do it again.”

On running back Ty Chandler “You know it’s different when it’s your last year, you want to go out with a bang. He’s definitely been working hard, working hard to just try and improve his game, just trying to show the next level that he’s prepared. Doing different things to make sure that his game is all around complete so when these 10 games are over, those scouts can watch that film and say ‘hey, this is a guy we need on our team.’ That’s really how he’s taking the approach to it, he’s really trying to be more professional with his game and just making sure everything is complete so when that day comes, he’s ready.”

On personal accountability within the team ...

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