Pruitt talks beating Kentucky, Guarantano and bowl eligibility

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Following an emotional win at Kentucky last Saturday night, head coach Jeremy Pruitt gave his Tennessee football team a couple days off to rest up and catch up on school work with exams looming.

Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt during first half action against Mississippi State Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. Michael Patrick/WVLT

The coaches have also spent the past couple days on the recruiting front trying to secure their 2020 class with the early signing date coming up next month.

But the coaches and players did return to the practice field on Wednesday. They'll work through Friday before taking the weekend off and will continue working on preparations for Missouri on Monday.

The Vols, who stand at 5-5, are one win shy of becoming bowl eligible and two wins away from a winning season with the Tigers and Vanderbilt Commodores remaining on the schedule. Below are comments from coach Pruitt's news conference on Wednesday as well as what several of the players are saying during this second bye week of the season:

Coach Pruitt's opening statement

“The bye week came at a really good time for us. We kind of limped into the last couple of games at certain positions with injuries, so it’s a great opportunity for our players and our team to get healed up, refocused and re-energized. We spent the last two days, in the time that we would normally practice from two to six, just doing extra academics."

"It’s that time of the semester where it’s getting prepped for finals and kind of getting some extra work done, so we’ll go out today and tomorrow and focus on fundamentals and things that we need to work on as far as situations for the next two weeks and focus a little bit on our opponents. But really, we want to get down to how we can improve fundamentally as a football team."

"I’ve said this numerous times, we have a long ways to go and we have not come close to playing our best game. We’re finding out why we made some mistakes in previous games and things that we can do to correct it. We’re continuing to grow as a football team offensively and defensively and on special teams. So, it’s something that we’re going to be focused on for the next couple of days.”

On if he believes Jarrett Guarantano is better coming off of the bench:

“I think Jarrett, when he plays within himself and goes through the progressions, he has a great opportunity to have success. He’s a smart guy, tough guy, the game comes easy to him and he can make all the throws, he’s an instinctive guy. I do think the last couple of weeks, based off the scenario that we’ve had as far as how many reps he can take in practice with his hand, it has given us the best opportunity to kind of do the things that we’ve done in the way that we’ve done it at the quarterback position.

"I do think he’s probably more suited to come off the bench maybe than the other guys. There’s a lot of emotion and anxiety that goes into the preparation and getting ready for a game, and I think the fact that he has a little age on him and some maturity, he can handle coming off of the bench. I think he can see and process and take some of the things that have happened previously in the game and can take advantage of it. It’s something that we felt like gave us the best opportunity to win and to have success, so that’s why we’ve done it. I think he can play just as well starting the game, so it all goes back to those intangibles and those details. So that’s the way it’s kind of played out.”

On last year’s team also having a 5-5 record entering the final two games of the season:

“Last year’s team has had really no impact on this year’s team; this is a totally new team. I do think that the people that were on this team can learn lessons from last year and can draw upon experiences. We’re focusing on the things that we need to, to have success for the remainder of the year. We have to clean up a lot of things on both sides of the ball and special teams. It’s a great opportunity for our guys to continue to improve as players and for us to improve as a football team.”

On when the coaches decided how to handle the off week:

“You plan your season out from a quality control standpoint in how you want to handle off weeks in the preseason, no different than how you would plan out a game, or how you want to face certain situations. There are times where you have to take into account where you are right now as a football team, whether that’s now with in-game adjustments or decisions or where you are on an off week, so we took all of that into account and really decided Sunday after the game just kind of based on where we are and what we needed to do to give us the best opportunity to heal up."

"We have some guys that have been really banged up that have really pushed through and we have guys that have been close to getting to be able to play that weren’t ready, so to give them an opportunity. And how do you do that and still continue to develop as a football team? So, we tried to take all of that into account and that’s why we decided to do it the way we have.”

On if they are still red shirting Elijah Simmons after playing him at Kentucky:

“Well you can play in four games and he has played in two. He will have an opportunity to play in two more. But he won’t play in more than two (more).”

On why the team has been more of a second half team:

“Probably experience. If you just go back and look offensively, besides Jarrett (Guarantano) at quarterback, the wide receivers had really little returning experience on the offensive side. I know Trey (Smith) has played a lot of ball, but he only practiced once during fall camp. Brandon Kennedy is a fifth-year guy but he has not played a whole lot of ball. So, I think that part, with these guys playing together, has helped us out offensively. Defensively, there had been very few guys up front that had played any ball that really mattered here in the past.

“Then we have kind of been beat up in the secondary for most of the year. We probably haven’t had one game where our entire secondary is healthy. So, we have had to piece together pieces throughout the entire year. Probably just experience guys that hadn’t played a lot gathering experience and some of it may be attitude, too. I feel like your mind controls a lot of things, your thoughts and your actions. Sometimes if you just kind of set your mind to doing something, you can figure out a way to get it done. I am not going to be denied attitude. I think we have grown in that regard as the season has went. We have showed a little bit more mental toughness. Probably all of those things have a little something to do with it.”

On an update on Henry To’o To’o, Bryce Thompson and Darnell Wright:

“There are certain guys on our team that won’t be able to practice today that they may be better off resting. I am not going into specifics on who that would be. There are other guys that need to take some reps because they have not taken some in quite some time. We will handle it on an individual basis and what we feel like is best for the individual player.”

On what would Jarrett Guarantano need to show him to reclaim being the starting quarterback:

“I guess the starting job is not as important to me as it is who is playing effectively, efficiently and who is giving us the best chance to win. It is kind of like basketball. You have five guys out there, but you may have two guys who come off the bench that give you 35 points. So, we play a lot of players. I know the quarterback position in itself is a little unusual to play multiple guys this day in time.

“I have belief that Jarrett gives us a great opportunity to win us football games. I believe that Brian Maurer, I believe that J.T. Shrout gives us opportunities to win football games. Jarrett has an advantage over our guys because he has a lot more experience. But we will see how things go. The players on our team trust us. They believe in what we are doing. And whoever we send out first is because we feel like that is the best plan that works for us in that game. I don’t know who that will be as we move forward, but the players dictate that, not me. They control who plays. We play the guy that gives us the best opportunity to win football games.”

On the run game struggling over the last couple of weeks:

"We have to play cleaner up front, we have to tie things together from perimeter blocks to our offensive front. We need to make more guys miss at the running back position. We have to give our offense an opportunity to run the football too. Some of that goes into it. I think that the last game was a little unusual when you look at the time of possession versus the offensive snaps that we had. If you are going to throw RPOs you have to do a nice job at quarterback making the right reads. If it's supposed to be a handoff, hand it off and if it's not you have to throw the ball, because you are obviously not blocking on the perimeter. We have to do a better job in that scenario."

On Trey Smith being named a semifinalist for Collegiate Man of the Year:

"Take the football out of it, you won't find a better representative, number one, of his family. When you look at Henry (father) and Ashley (sister), you see the type of people that Trey has come from. They are a wonderful family. He is a great representative on not only his family, but also the University of Tennessee. He loves the University of Tennessee. He puts others first. In this day in time, that is unusual, especially with the circumstances that he has been put under. You talk about poise and awareness and awareness of other people's feelings. I can't say enough about Trey and the type of person and the individual that he is. He does a fantastic job with anything that he touches. Whether it is on the field, off the field or in the classroom, he is what college football is all about. It's not surprising. I would like to meet the people that are more deserving of this award than Trey Smith."

On the lessons learned during the bye week so far and looking ahead to the remainder of the season:

"You want to figure out offensively, how did we create explosive plays? How did we consistently run the football? How did we protect the quarterback? How did we eliminate turnovers? How did we score touchdowns in the red area? Can we win short yardage? Can we win coming out? Can we win the four-minute drill at the end of the game? How effective are we in the two-minute situations before the half? Defensively, to me it starts with turnovers. How do you eliminate explosive plays? How do you eliminate touchdowns in the red area and hold people to field goals? Can you get off the field on third down, which we struggled with the last game. Special teams, how do you create explosive plays? Can you create some turnovers? Can you steal possessions? Can you generate something in the return game?"

"It all goes back to fundamentals. There are obviously some philosophical things that we probably need to look at as a coaching staff that will give us an opportunity to have more success. We have to go back to the ABCs this week and this is what we are going to do to try to improve as a football team."

On his teams’ tendencies and how that has contributed to overall play:

“It can be, are you giving up explosive plays in five-man pressures with man to man coverage? Are you giving up explosive plays in a four-man rush playing zone defense? So, you go back and look at all the analytics there, and see what you can do, see if something sticks out that might be an issue, or even something that you might do well. So, it works both ways, but yes that is something we are working on this week.”

On how important it has been to build relationships with his players:

“I’ve said this numerous times, the reason I got in this business was to have a positive impact on young people. I watched my father do it for 40-plus years. Some of the most influential people in my life were my coaches. So, it’s something for me that when you come to work every day, that it’s not work for me. I enjoy being around our team. The last two days I’ve been recruiting, which I enjoy doing. But, I haven’t gotten a chance to see our football team for two days, so immediately this morning when I got in I wanted to go to the weight room and speak to some of them since I hadn’t gotten a chance to see them. So, I’m excited for today, as we get into meetings and start cleaning up the last game and get into today’s practice."

"This 2019 team, which I believe that we are a really good team. I’ve said this before, I think we are a really good team as far as coming together and being for each other and caring about our teammates. Our guys have really focused on that, and to me that’s definitely showed the last several weeks. I’m excited about the opportunities that we have to finish this season. But, the one thing about it is that time’s ticking. There’s not a whole lot of time left, we still have a lot to prove, and everybody associated with our program knows that.”

On if he feels this team is more equipped to deal with their last two games then they were last year:

“I don’t like to compare this year to last year because it’s not the same team, it’s not the same individuals. There’s some that are the same but as a whole it is different. Our team this year, we started off not the way we wanted to, but one thing that we did do is we stuck together, our players have really bought in to what we are trying to get accomplished. They want to finish, we want to finish. We want to do it the right way, prepare, and todays another opportunity to do that. So, I really like where this group is headed, but the thing about it is that you are judged about what you do on Saturdays, so we got two more Saturdays to kind of pass the test. So, we are focused on improving today, and finishing out the semester in the classroom the right way, and if we do that…what else can we do.”

TENNESSEE PLAYER QUOTES:
Brandon Kennedy, R-Sr. OL

On the keys to getting a more consistent running game:

"I think the keys are the offensive line being on the same page and we need to be fundamentally sound. I think those two things are keys."

On the team being on the same page better earlier or later in the season:

"I think over the course of the season you learn the different things that you need to improve on. As the season has gone on, I think we have gotten better in those areas of communication and being on the same page."

On what the coaching staff said to get this season turned around:

"They told us that we need to stick together. When you go through times like that it is easy to blame each other and to put the blame on one person. They told us to stick together and I think we did that. I think it has been evident throughout the season."

On the bye week and getting a couple of days off:

"This bye week has been a great time for us to get our feet back under us and look at the things that we didn't do as well over the course of the season and to improve on those things in the practices we have this week."

Daniel Bituli, Sr. LB

On earning SEC Defensive Player of the Week:

“It also means great d-line play. You know I say it every week, I can’t do anything without my d-linemen. All credit to them for the work they are doing to keep those o-linemen off me. Because of them, I am able to have the opportunity to make those tackles in order to better the team.”

On playing against a run-heavy team:

“I love it. I love it when a team decides to run the ball because I get to get more tackles. I’m a linebacker, that’s what I’m here for; that’s what I’m made for; that’s what all those workouts we do with Coach Fitz (Craig Fitzgerald) are for. I definitely love a team that thinks they can come in and run the ball on us.”

On if he can improve on a game with 19 tackles:

“Oh definitely. Coach Pruitt says it all the time, ‘with a loss, there’s a lot more things that you can look over and see that you messed up on. But with a win, we tend to try to overlook the negative things we did, but there are still those negative things we did during the football game because nobody really plays a perfect football game.’ I just got to look at those things. This last game, I feel like I overran some tackles that I could have stopped from that point on when I hit the running back, but definitely a lot of things I can clean up.”

On riding a three-game win streak:

“It helps a lot. It just reminds us that if we continue to work the way we have been each and every day, if we win each and every practice that we are going into, then things like this are going to happen. We just have to keep that same mindset because we know that if we don’t come out with our A-game each and every game any team can beat us.”

Matthew Butler, Jr. DL

On Ja’Quain Blakely getting in on the game winning tackle:

“I was excited. In the moment, I was pretty lost in the moment. I was just excited that we had essentially clinched the game, but as soon as I saw the replay and saw that Blakely got in there and was the first one there to essentially choke slam him behind the line of scrimmage, that really excited me. That’s my boy and it’s good to see a fellow d-lineman make a play like that.”

On if the Kentucky win gives them confidence on the road:

“Last week we played a tough game and we’ve been able to have a couple of days off. Today, we’re going to focus on today. We’re going to make sure our bodies are prepped for this upcoming practice. Hopefully we can get some techniques right, look at some film and learn from what happened at Kentucky.”

On importance of Darrell Taylor’s PAT block:

“It was definitely big. On special teams, every inch matters and every point counts and blocking that extra point really changed the course of the game. It changed how the opposing offense is able to work off of that.”

On battles with K’Rojhn Calbert:

“I was about three feet from him, his freshman year when he had his initial injury. So, seeing that and seeing how he’s bounced back and turned himself into a special player in the SEC has been really inspiring. I’m close with him; he’s stayed level headed through everything and as you can see it’s paying off.”

Jauan Jennings, R-Sr. WR

On the defense’s goal-line stand at Kentucky:

“It was a lot of excitement, a lot of emotion flowing. I saw Ja’Quain Blakely tackle him and then saw (Daniel) Bituli get him down and finish the game. It was just a lot of excitement just knowing the game was over, we just had to go out there and perform as an offense, which we did. JG (Jarrett Guarantano) did a great job. Just coming out with a W means a whole lot.”

On Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer both having big games against Kentucky:

“Marquez and Palmer have great abilities and I wasn’t surprised to see them step up the way they did. They do it all the time in practice, so to see them go out there and do it in a game it means a little bit more. Just knowing that they have the skill set to do so, it wasn’t that surprising.”

On Jarrett Guarantano’s play lately:

“He’s worked his tail off since he lost the job and come back, and for him to come back in and come out in the second half and perform the way he did just shows a lot about a person that is built around perseverance. JG has shown a lot of leadership through all of this and he’s grown as a person and grown as a quarterback for this team and is going to be an important part of us winning.”

K’Rojhn Calbert, R-So. OL

On how he feels the offensive line has played recently:

“I feel like we have improved every week, we go in there with the mindset that we are going to get better, everything we do we try to get better at, so as long as we keep doing that.”

On if he feels they’ve built up some chemistry:

“Yeah, I feel like we have built some chemistry, but then again everybody has to be ready to go at some point. So, whether this person isn’t playing or that person isn’t playing, we all have to be able to step up to the plate and contribute.”

On how good it felt to for him to be able to be healthy again and play multiple games:

“It’s definitely an amazing feeling, being out there on the field is like no other. When I first got here, I tore my ACL; I’ve kind of put that in the past and behind me. I try not to really think about that as much, I just want to go out there and play. But just playing with the guys, is what I really enjoy doing the most, just being able to build up some chemistry, playing with different guys, it just feels great.”

On how much it took to get over his past injury issues:

“It took a little bit, it was always in the back of my brain whenever I first got cleared to play. But at some point, you have to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to let loose and go.’ You can’t be afraid, you can’t be scared. But, it definitely took a little bit for me to get over that stuff.”

Darrell Taylor, R-Sr. LB

On what it means for him to be invited to the Senior Bowl:

“It means a lot to me. It is a great opportunity and I think I will do great out there. I think I will get a great opportunity. There are (going to be) some great players and coaches (there).”

On what the team learned from last year going against Missouri at 5-5 overall: “I think we are playing our best ball at the end of the season. I think we are not really worried about last year, we can’t really think about it and it is in the past. So, we are worried about getting healthy this weekend and getting ready for Missouri next weekend.”

On how big it was to win on the road and how it gave the team confidence:

“It was big. It was a lot of confidence for us and a big confidence booster for us. I think we played well in the second half. We didn’t come out well in the first half. It showed and I think it was a big confidence booster to get that win on the road because we haven’t won on the road this season yet. It was big for us.”

On what the key adjustments were in the second half:

“The second-half adjustment was just keep the quarterback bottled up and stop the run. We didn’t stop the run in the first half and that was something we tried to do in the second half. I thought we did a good job at keeping them out of the end zone and shutting them out in the second half. I think we did an awesome job with that.”

On why he thinks they have been doing so well in the second half:

“I think it is because Coach Jeremy Pruitt has been getting on our tails. I think it is also because we have become a second-half team. We have always talked about being a four-quarter team, but I think we have been getting our money in the second half. As the game goes on, we have gotten stronger as a defense and we play a lot better in the second half than we did in the first half of the game.”

Henry To’o To’o, Fr. LB

On riding a three-game win streak:

“It feels good, nobody likes losing. Everybody likes winning. It shows the hard work and the dedication we have put in as a team. It has all been paying off as you have seen the past few weeks.”

On winning out and making a bowl game:

“We don’t want to focus on that right now. We don’t want to look ahead, we are focused on this week and the fundamentals because we have a lot of things to work on as a team. Getting healthy is one, just focusing on the little things because the little things can cost you big time.”

On the importance of staying focused:

“Coach Pruitt told us that after the win on Saturday. Just being able to finish. Take every day as serious as you can, take every week as serious as you can and not really look ahead. Stay focused on this week and focused on the fundamentals and the little things.”

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