Improving Tennessee Ready for ‘Measuring Stick’ Game

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt said his Volunteer squad continues to improve and they will use this weekend's matchup at No. 1 Alabama as a "measuring stick" for the program's progress.

Coach Pruitt speaks at the news presser following 34-3 loss to the Gators. / Source: (WVLT)

The Vols held a spirited practice in shells at Haslam Field on Wednesday night in preparation for the 102nd meeting between Tennessee and Alabama. The game will kickoff at 9:10 p.m. ET (ESPN) inside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. The Vols will be looking to snap the Crimson Tide's 12-game win streak in the "Third Saturday in October" series.

Alabama enters the game 6-0 and ranked No. 1 in both the polls. The Crimson Tide is led by junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was the Heisman Trophy runner-up a year ago and has 27 touchdowns and only one interception halfway through the 2019 season.

"There are lots of guys that continue to improve, and this is a great opportunity and a tremendous challenge for these guys," Pruitt said. "You talk about a measuring stick, you talk about the best team probably in the country at their place, if you want to be a good football player, if you want to be a good football team, this is a great opportunity to prove it against one of the best teams in the country."

One Vol who has made substantial improvement this season is redshirt junior tight end Austin Pope. The Knoxville, Tenn., native has five starts and has excelled as a tremendous blocker. He has three receptions for 15 yards. However, Pruitt thinks Pope could be more of a factor in the passing game soon.

"He's been a guy that I feel like continues to play good football." Pruitt said. "To me, I think he's a guy that has some playmaking ability as a pass catcher. Hopefully we'll have some opportunities to get him some balls there."

Pope, who has played in 26 career games, is healthy this season after battling a back injury in 2018.

"In the spring when we first got here, he was a guy that I recognized that was an instinctive football player and that had good toughness," Pruitt said. "He had some ability to play the position. Then he started having issues with his back, and after the procedure he's had a lot of relief there. He's been able to practice and compete on Saturdays, so he's much improved."

Maurer a Game Time Decision
True freshman quarterback Brian Maurer will be a game time decision, Pruitt said following Wednesday's practice. The Ocala, Fla., native took non-contact reps during practice following his first-half injury versus Mississippi State and he continues to be evaluated.

Maurer is 22-of-48 for 364 yards and two touchdowns with four interceptions this season. He provided an instant spark for the Vols in his first start against then-No. 3 Georgia, tossing two touchdowns in the first half, including a 73-yard bomb for his first-ever completion in Neyland Stadium, while giving the Vols a 14-10 lead in the second quarter. His 259-yard performance versus Georgia marked the second-most yards ever by a Tennessee true freshman quarterback in their first-career start.

George Standing Out
Redshirt junior cornerback Kenneth George Jr. has started the last two games opposite Bryce Thompson and could be in line for his third straight start on Saturday. George, a native of Lafayette, La., had an interception against Mississippi State and has 10 total tackles and three pass breakups this season.

George didn't play high school football and walked on to Trinity Valley Community College in Texas in 2016 where he redshirted a year before playing in 11 games in 2017 and drawing interest from FBS programs. He played in only four games in his first year on Rocky Top last fall due to injury, but is blossoming in his second year in the program.

"He continues to improve," Pruitt said. "Some of the questions that he asks on a daily basis you realize that he hasn't play a whole lot of ball. He's a guy that has good athletic ability and has some toughness to him and ball skills. He continues to work."

Jeremy Pruitt Press Conference Full Transcript (Oct. 16)

Opening Statement:

“Good work out there today. Our guys continue to work hard at practice. I’ve seen a lot of younger guys that continue to develop. It’s that time of year, you get to spend extra time with them. We take an extra period of time out of practice to spend with some of these guys to spend with these guys on player development and it’s good to see that. I saw some guys at the end of practice today that I’ve seen them do some of things they’ve learned early in the week and applied in a team setting down there, so that was good to see.

“You look at our opponent this week, there’s not a whole lot we can do about them. The thing we need to focus on is us continuing to improve as a football team, creating the right habits and being more consistent in things that we’ve been harping on the entire year — starting with ball security and playing clean on offense, finding a way to create explosive plays and scoring touchdowns in the red area. Defensively, being sure tacklers, playing together, making the other team earn it and being able to get some pressure on the quarterback. On special teams, to me the last couple of weeks we haven’t created an advantage there. We did Saturday on the opening kickoff, but in the return game we have to do a much better job there.”

On Brian Maurer’s status:

“It’ll still be a game-time decision with him. It’s easy to take reps because they have a protocol where they kind of adjust them back into the practice schedule, so you don’t hit the quarterback. So, he has taken reps this week.”

On who on the team has grown the most over the first half of the season:

“It’s tough to single out certain guys. I just mentioned Brandon (Kennedy) because we were talking about the offensive line. It’s good to see a guy that finally gets an opportunity to play and the more he plays, the better he gets. Probably the competition keeps improving every week and he has continued to kind of be the steady force inside that makes all the calls for the guys and has enabled us to have a little bit of success up there. A guy I talked about last week with the tight ends was Austin Pope. He’s been a guy that I feel like continues to play good football. To me, I think he’s a guy that has some playmaking ability as a pass catcher. Hopefully we’ll have some opportunities to get him some balls there. There are lots of guys that continue to improve, and this is a great opportunity and tremendous challenge for these guys. You talk about a measuring stick, you talk about the best team probably in the country at their place, if you want to be a good football player, if you want to be a good football team, this is a great opportunity to prove it against one of the best teams in the country.”

On keeping his team's confidence up even when they are playing elite opponents such as Alabama:

“That is kind of the secret. We have talked to our players about it. At the end of the year, there is only one team that stands on that stage. It doesn’t matter who it is or what conference they play in, when you have to win 14 or 15 games to be there, you are talking about creating the right habits and doing it over and over again. It’s hard to do. It takes discipline. It takes mental toughness. It probably takes a little luck there too. It’s something that we talk to our team about. If you want to be one of those teams one day then it’s the habits that you have to sustain in this league to play like that every week. You have to be able to do it.”

On defending RPOs:

“When you look at RPOs there is a couple of concepts that most everyone runs. People have gotten more creative as the years have gone by. I think the guys in Tuscaloosa do as good as a job with them as anyone in the country. I think it fits the quarterback that they have. He has a really fast release. The receivers compliment their running game. It helps them be balanced and they really are. It’s tough to defend.”

On high school quarterbacks running RPOs:

“I think the game has changed. It has really changed in the last five years. It filters down. Right now, it’s kind of filtering up. You see a little more of that on Sundays. In all of football, everyone looks to who is having success. They want to pick something from this team or that team, we all do. I think that is something that everyone does. We kind of look and see who is doing something really well and we try to copy it.”

On LaTrell Bumphus and Warren Burrell and if Bumphus will be available to play:

“Warren is a guy that sometimes with those ankle injuries it kind of lingers, and it doesn’t take a lot to aggravate them. He’ll be available, and so will Jahmir (Johnson). [For] Bumphus, we will figure that out in the next couple of days.”

On Kenneth George and how he has grown throughout the season:

“He didn’t play high school football. He was redshirted at a junior college, and then he played one year. Then he was here last year, and he had a lower leg injury and didn’t get to play much during the season and missed spring ball. He continues to improve. Some of the questions that he asks on a daily basis you realize that he hasn’t play a whole lot of ball. He’s a guy that has good athletic ability and has some toughness to him and ball skills. He continues to work.”

On Austin Pope and his change post back surgery:

“In the spring when we first got here, he was a guy that I recognized that was an instinctive football player and that had good toughness. He had some ability to play the position. Then he started having issues with his back, and after the procedure he’s had a lot of relief there. He’s been able to practice and compete on Saturdays, so he’s much improved.”

On facing Alabama this week:

“Well it is kind of like I said before, we have to focus on the things that we can control and that’s us. How we prepare during the week. If we create the right habits and get a good idea of the game plan and play with the right temperament, it gives us a chance to have success. That’s what we are focused on.”

On if he will take in the moment more so than usual after having been a player and a coach at Alabama:

“No, I don’t think so. Trust me, I am very thankful for the opportunities I’ve had. I’m thankful for this opportunity. You’re guaranteed the next game, so my goal is to have our team playing our best football and that’s always been the goal. Doesn’t matter which stadium we are in.”

On managing Brian Maurer’s instinct without taking away his dynamic:

“I don’t think that you can. I think if a guy has instincts as a runner, it comes naturally to him. I’m sure the speed of the game is different. On Saturday, he is running the ball and probably thought he was going to make that guy miss. The guy got on him probably a little faster than he realized and turned him upside down. He’s got to make good decisions. You know, he’s made some really nice plays. It is something that we saw in camp, but he has got to take care of the football. It is the number one priority as quarterback, take care of the football. He’s got to learn from that and do it.

On how often this team has played like the best version of itself:

“You are always looking to play the perfect game, and we are nowhere near close. I feel like we have a high ceiling with some of the guys we got. As we play more games, we gather more experience. We’ve got to continue to improve. I feel like we have improved every game this year, but we’ve got a long ways to go. We’ve got to work hard every single day to create the right habits so we can improve.”

On Riley Locklear and the guard position:

“We don’t know if he is going to play yet. So right now, I’d say he probably won’t. We’ve got Trey Smith in there. We can play Darnell (Wright) in there, Ryan Johnson, Jerome Carvin, Chris Akporoghene, we can play Jahmir (Johnson). So, we have guys in there that can go and play.”