KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt said true freshman quarterback Brian Maurer will officially make his second consecutive start at Noon on Saturday when Mississippi State travels to Neyland Stadium for the first time since 2008.
“Maurer is a guy that for the second week in a row we have catered the package around him to see what he does well,” Pruitt said. “I think the longer you do something, the better you get at it. To me, what I see is a guy that seems to have a little more command.”
The Vols practiced in shells and shorts on Wednesday at Haslam Field in an effort to keep the team fresh with a Noon kick coming after last weekend’s night game.
“I felt like with a Noon kickoff, we needed to get our legs back under us a little bit,” Pruitt said. “Our guys are continuing to work hard. We have some guys that are a coming back from some injuries that are a little banged up that are out there, which is good to see. It seems like we’ve had really spirited practices and good competition between each other.”
Maurer had an outstanding first half in his first-ever collegiate start against No. 3 Georgia, throwing for 205 yards and two touchdowns before halftime as Tennessee held the lead until the two-minute mark in the second quarter. He finished with 259 yards on 14-of-28 passing with the two first-half scores and an interception. His passing mark was the second-most ever by a UT true freshman in his first start.
Still, Pruitt hopes to establish the run game to ease the load on his rookie passer. Tennessee’s running back got an added boost when junior Tim Jordan had his best game of the season against Georgia as he returned to form following an ankle injury. Jordan finished with a team-high 47 yards against the Bulldogs and he combines with leading rusher Ty Chandler (64 ypg) and versatile freshman Eric Gray to give the Vols a much-improved rushing attack this season.
“One guy that has really stuck out to me in the last week with how he’s played and how he’s competed, really going all the way back to the Auburn game (last season), is Tim Jordan,” Pruitt said. “When he’s gotten his opportunities, he’s continued to work hard, play good on special teams and it’s been good to see him out there getting it going. Tim’s a guy that really likes ball and has been a really good practice player for us.”
Jordan has rushed for 686 yards and three scores over his three-year career, including a standout 118-yard performance against West Virginia to open the 2018 season. Jordan, Chandler, Gray and senior Carlin Fils-aime will look to get the offense rolling on the ground against a Mississippi State defense that ranks No. 11 in the SEC against the rush, allowing 158.0 yards per game.
“They’re always tough to block,” Pruitt said. “They’re big, strong and physical guys and we have to figure out a way to create some explosive plays. We can’t turn the ball over and when we get in the red area we have to score some touchdowns.”
Overall, the Mississippi State defense, coordinated by former Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, ranks 13th in the league in total defense, giving up 401.4 yards per game. Shoop’s Mississippi State defense ranked No. 1 in the country in 2018 (263.1 yards per game), but the Bulldogs lost several top players to the NFL and have had several veterans miss games due to suspension this fall.
Brandon Johnson to Redshirt
Pruitt announced on Wednesday that senior wide receiver Brandon Johnson will redshirt, taking advantage of the NCAA’s new rule that allows players to play in up to four games and still retain that year of eligibility.
He led Tennessee with 37 receptions and 482 receiving yards as sophomore in 2017. For his 37-game career he has 60 catches for 738 yards and one score. He has two catches as a backup receiver and a special teams touchdown following a blocked punt through four games in 2019.
“Brandon was playing probably eight to 12 plays offensively though the first four games,” Pruitt said. “He’s a guy that has really good ability, but we have some senior guys there who were probably a little ahead of him at the time. It is something we have decided to do moving forward.”
Morris, Wright Make Impact
True freshman left tackle Wanya Morris has started four games this season and paired up with fellow rookie Darnell Wright to start in three. The duo is expected to bookend the Vols’ offensive line on Saturday at the left and right tackle spots.
Pruitt said the sky is the limit for the pair of five-star freshman tackles. However, they must put the work in on the practice field and consistently take what they learn to the stadium on Saturdays for 60 minutes.
“There’s times – both of them – when you watch them play, there’s some really good things that they do,” Pruitt said. “But the thing that they both have to focus on is the habits that they create every day. The good Lord blessed them with a lot of ability, but what are they going to do with that ability and take it and go to work every single day.
“How do you work to create the right habits to improve to be at your best all the time? That’s something that they have to decide how good they want to be.”
Morris and Wright are two of five true freshmen who have started in 2019, joining linebacker Henry To’o To’o, cornerback Warren Burrell and Maurer. Overall, 20 true freshmen have played through five games in 2019.
Morris expected to compete for playing time when he arrived. He hopes his class can be a foundation for building Tennessee back to the top.
“We all talked about it before we even came here,” Morris said. “We knew that we had the possibility to play, so we took it amongst ourselves, that role, to come in and make an impact.”
Jeremy Pruitt Press Conference Transcript (Oct. 9)
“This is the third day of good work out there. We actually didn’t go into full pads today. I felt like with a noon kickoff, we needed to get our legs back under us a little bit. Being a bit thin at certain positions it gives us an opportunity to get Trey (Smith) some extra work and obviously this week Riley Locklear also. It was a good chance to evaluate those guys and to see where they’re at. Our guys are continuing to work hard. We have some guys that are a coming back from some injuries that are a little banged up that are out there, which is good to see. It seems like we’ve had really spirited practices and good competition between each other. One guy that has really stuck out to me in the last week with how he’s played and how he’s competed, really going all the way back to the Auburn game, is Tim Jordan. He’s a guy that didn’t play much at Florida, because he had been banged up a bit, but when he’s gotten his opportunities he’s continued to work hard, play good on special teams and it’s been good to see him out there getting it going. Tim’s a guy that really likes ball and has been a really good practice player for us.
“When you look at Mississippi State, I’ve said it before, they’re big, they’re fast, they’re physical and they’re a very experienced team, especially on offense with the age of their football team with the exception of quarterback. Every player that starts for them is either a junior, a redshirt-junior, a senior or a redshirt-senior, so they’ve all been in the program at least three years, so they have a lot of age there. Defensively they create a lot of turnovers. Based off their suspensions, they’re probably affected a bit more defensively, because of some of the players that have been out, but I’m sure some of those players will play this week and that’ll give them an opportunity to have their best defense out there. They’re always tough to block. They’re big, strong and physical guys and we have to figure out a way to create some explosive plays. We can’t turn the ball over and when we get in the red area we have to score some touchdowns.”
On injures along the offensive line:
“Well, we’ve been moving guys around all year because Trey (Smith) doesn’t practice on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s. We went out there today in spider pads just to give him and Riley (Locklear) an opportunity there just to see where they’re at. We felt like that’s the best thing, so we’ve had to shuffle some guys around there. Jerome Carvin has been there, Brandon Kennedy has had a bit of a sore knee, so he didn’t take as many reps today as he’s taken, so that’s all there was to it.”
On what he has learned about his team so far this season:
“Going back and looking at our football program from the first day I walked into the building, we are a lot closer today then we were then. I see a bunch of guys that are hungry to have success and are willing to do what it takes to have success. Also, I see a lot of young guys. So, when you have a lot of young guys you are looking for somebody to figure out how to do something. I know for me, when I have tough situations that happen in my life, who do I call? I talk to my mom, I talk to my dad, I talk to people who have wisdom. People who have kind of been down that road before. So, you kind of do that as a football player too, you want to seek out somebody who has been there, done that before. Unfortunately, for a lot of our guys we just don’t have a lot of older guys that have. Our team is really a young group of guys, so they are kind of searching and trying to figure it out as we go and trying to kind of find their way. So, we are getting there, it’s pretty simple when you look at our record. I’ve said it before, turning the football over, not getting enough turnovers, and being clean as we play. So, that’s where we are at. Is it because we lack effort and toughness? No, but we lack a little bit of execution, so we have to find a way to get there.”
On the health status of DB Warren Burrell:
“Starting with Warren, he’s practicing. Warren is a tough kid, he’s a competitor, he wants to play. I don’t know if he’s ready today, but where he was at last Wednesday when the injury happened and where he was at that Saturday was significant. At least this week he’s had an opportunity to take some reps. He may be a guy we need to sit tomorrow to give him a chance to recover a little bit. He still lacks a little bit of being able to push off that leg. I don’t think there’s anything with his speed, I think it’s a little more change of direction, but he’ll have a chance to be ready by Saturday.”
On the growth of Alontae Taylor this season:
“He’s learning how to be a defensive back. He had an opportunity to play last year, played a lot of football and at times played really well. At other times he was probably a little lost just being new to the position. So, as a guy that works extremely hard every single day, he’s gifted athletically, he has the want to. But the one thing about that position is if you mess up there, then everybody knows, even you’re mama, so it’s not very forgiving. You mess up a three technique, nobody knows, you mess up at inside backer, very few know, you mess up at corner, the whole world knows, so that’s a position where you have to have a short memory and go back and go to work and I think he has tried to do that.”
On moving Quavaris Crouch to inside linebacker:
“Q is a just a guy to give us a little depth on the inside. One of the things you want to do is be able to get your best 11 players on the field, regardless. He’s a guy that is now ready to do both. There has been lots of years that maybe with our SAM and JACK and MIKE and WILL went down, maybe a nickel or SAM might play the money spot, which is the WILL in nickel. This is not unusual for us, we’ve always cross-trained guys that were able to do it. It gives you an opportunity to play the best players.”
On the decision to redshirt WR Brandon Johnson:
“You know, it’s one of the things that me and Brandon have talked about. I thought about it early on in fall camp with Jauan (Jennings), Marquez (Callaway) and Josh Palmer. Those three guys, especially with some of the younger guys, Cedric Tillman and Ramel Keyton having some success there in fall camp. We talked about it a little bit as a staff and then I met with Brandon and his mom and dad and we decided to do that. Brandon was playing probably eight to 12 plays offensively though the first four games. He’s a guy that has really good ability, but we have some senior guys there who were probably a little ahead of him at the time. It is something we have decided to do moving forward.”
On starting this week Brian Maurer:
“Brian will be the starting quarterback on Saturday. I would think everybody would know that. He’s a guy that for the second week in a row we have catered the package around him to see what he does well. I think the longer you do something, the better you get at it. To me, what I see is a guy that seems to have a little more command. One thing that you do as a quarterback, you kind of get caught up in your world. There’s lots of things that go on there because the ball goes through your hands. The guys that really have success are the ones that can still control their world there when it goes on with the quarterback and still have an effect on the people and the field at the same time. The great ones can have an effect on the entire team.”
On importance of the running game against Mississippi State:
“One thing that we want to do every week is figure out a way to have success on the ground. I think you want to be able to take what the defense gives you, but it’s hard to have success offensively if you can’t run the football. You probably could look every week; the teams that have success running it, it opens up things when they throw the football. If you can’t run the football, it’s a hard day’s work, so we have to find a way to do that.
On the play of freshmen offensive linemen Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright:
“Well you know, I had a talk today with Wanya about what his goals are. There’s times – both of them – when you watch them play, there’s some really good things that they do. But the thing that they both have to focus on is the habits that they create every day. The good Lord blessed them with a lot of ability, but what are they going to do with that ability and take it and go to work every single day. What are their goals? Taking about individual, from the last snap of every practice, whether it’s on a Monday or whether it’s on a Saturday, how do you go to work? How do you work to create the right habits to improve to be at your best all the time? That’s something that they have to decide how good they want to be.”
On the unique Mississippi State player suspension situation:
“I didn’t know much about the suspensions. I heard about them mainly because Jay Shoop [son of Mississippi State defensive coordinator Bob Shoop] is on our team. He talked to me about it back there in fall camp I think it was. But I did not realize exactly how they were handling it until Sunday. I don’t know much about it, but it is an unusual circumstance.”
On the importance on establishing the run with a true freshman quarterback starting:
“I think it’s every week. You need to be able to run the football. There’s probably been one game that we’ve really got it going, but if you look at our yards per carry, it’s much improved. We’ve got to continue to do that. I even thought Saturday that there were lots of plays where we created seven and eight-yard runs where we came off the football, but we’ve got to be more consistent. There were a couple times we were under center and we didn’t fire off the ball the right way. That starts at the quarterback position. You’ve got to be loud in your cadence, deliberate so everybody can fire off the ball at the same time. This goes back to details, which is team starts, you start the day with every day. We definitely need to be able to find a way to create some positive yards in the run game.”