KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT)-- Cornerback Bryce Thompson and punter Joe Doyle were freshman All-Americans a year ago, but the Vols remain in competition at their respective positions during fall camp.
Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt stressed that competition remains at nearly every position group on the field 10 practices into fall camp.
Following Tuesday's workout at Haslam Field, Pruitt said freshman Warren Burrell is pushing Thompson and Alontae Taylor at the cornerback positions with veteran Baylen Buchanan sidelined with an injury.
He also said that punter/kicker Paxton Brooks is neck-and-neck with Doyle for the punter spot.
"There are lots of areas of our football team that not only do we not have starters, we don't know who the twos are or who the threes are, so there's lots of competition and it will change daily," said Pruitt. "When you go to the stadium and scrimmage, it's an opportunity to see how you perform without the coaches out there with you. We had some guys that performed better than others and maybe they weren't the same guys as when we had practice, so that's good to see and we'll see how they respond this week."
Pruitt has stressed that he will always play the best player no matter his year as he did last year when Taylor and Thompson started the majority of the games as true freshmen at cornerback.
Taylor started nine games in 2018 and Thompson started 10 in the defensive backfield, with both appearing in all 12 games on the Vols' schedule. Taylor collected 40 tackles, a tackle for loss, two forced fumbles, two breakups and a blocked kick in his debut season. Thompson wrapped up his freshman campaign with 34 tackles, a sack, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, 10 pass deflections and three interceptions.
Burrell, a freshman from Suwanee, Georgia, was a four-star rated recruit by Rivals and one of the top 30 prospects from the state of Georgia. The North Gwinnett High School product led his team to a 14-1 record and the Georgia Class 7A State Championship in 2017.
"A lot of people make a lot about Bryce (Thompson) and Alontae (Taylor)," said Pruitt. "Bryce and Alontae played because they were the best players here. Both of them have a long way to go to improve as football players. I believe both have the skill set to play the position. They're different, but they work hard. They like ball so they have a chance to be good football players down the road. Are they right now? They still have a ways to go. It's good that Warren (Burrell) is here, because he creates competition."
Brooks and Doyle in Competition for Punter
Brooks and Doyle appeared in and started all 12 games in 2018 for the Vols. Brooks kicked off 52 times for 3,177 yards with 23 touchbacks. Doyle punted 65 times for 2,673 yards with 12 punts of 50+ yards. His career-long punt came against Georgia when he launched the ball 71 yards.
"This is probably a couple of years worth of battling," Pruitt said. "I think last year Joe was probably a little more consistent. He's a year older even though they're both classified as sophomores, but Joe had a redshirt under him. That's all Joe does is punt, Paxton does kickoffs and field goals so he has a little more on his plate. I think Paxton has done a good job of trying to tighten down in the punting part and being more consistent."
99 Plays at Neyland
On Sunday at Neyland Stadium, the Vols held their first scrimmage of the year. The team went through 99 plays that featured team play and situational football.
"We played 99 plays on Sunday in the scrimmage," said Pruitt. "If you look at both sides of the ball, even in the kicking game, it's kind of what we talked about with what kind of players we have on our team. We have guys that know what to do, they know how to play, and they know how to execute."
Pruitt said the Vols have several options to return kicks and punts this season, including senior Marquez Callaway, who returned punts in 2017 and 2018, and junior Ty Chandler, Tennessee's top kick returner the last two seasons.
"We've got lots of guys for punt return," said Pruitt. "Marquez Callaway has done it for a few years and has done a nice job. We have Bryce (Thompson), Kenny Solomon, Jordan Murphy, Ty Chandler, Eric Gray. We have guys back there that have worked at it. We have the same guys when it comes to kickoff return."
Callaway has two career punt return touchdowns and is his career return average (13.4) is the highest among any active player in the FBS. The senior recorded a career-best 81-yard return against Charlotte for a score in 2018.
Chandler owns a 22-yard kick-return average and a return for a touchdown heading into his junior year. The Nashville product's career-long return came as a freshman where he ran the ball back 91 yards for a score in his first-career start against Indiana State. Thompson showed flashes in the return game as a freshman last season, averaging 25 yards a return on four attempts.
Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt Press Conference Transcript
“We played 99 plays on Sunday in the scrimmage. If you look at both sides of the ball, even in the kicking game, it’s kind of what we talked about with what kind of players we have on our team. We have guys that know what to do, they know how to play, and they know how to execute. It’s the same way in the kicking game, same way on offense and defense. And we have very few of those guys. I think everybody probably would know who they are, the guys that have had success here in the past, so we have a few guys like that and a lot of guys that have plenty of ability, they flash at times, but they’re inconsistent. And we have to get those guys to play at a higher level in all three phases. And then we have a few guys that have ability and for whatever reason, they don’t know what to do or they don’t know how to do it — they’re just not there yet. And that’s all over the country right now, not just at Tennessee, that’s everywhere. That’s the way that fall camp goes and that’s the reason that you see teams that have experience tend to have success. That’s where we are right now. We have to work hard this week. We’ve set some goals offensively, defensively and in special teams to improve on this week and we’re working hard to do that.”
On if the scrimmage helped determine the starting offensive linemen and Jordan Allen’s injury:
“We really don’t have any starters anywhere. I think we have a starting quarterback. We have a few guys that I think have played some really good ball in the spring, in the summer and in fall camp. They’ve continued to do that, and they play at a high level. There are lots of areas of our football team that not only do we not have starters, we don’t know who the twos are or who the threes are, so there’s lots of competition and it will change daily. When you go to the stadium and scrimmage, it’s an opportunity to see how you perform without the coaches out there with you. We had some guys that performed better than others and maybe they weren’t the same guys as when we had practice, so that’s good to see and we’ll see how they respond this week.
"As far as Jordan, he had a sports hernia that he’s been working hard trying to get back and we just decided to go ahead and fix it.”
On Eric Gray’s performance during the scrimmage:
“Like a lot of young guys, he has flashes where he does a lot of really good things, but he has to be more consistent and hold on to the football. He’s a guy that can help using special teams and possibly in the return game. He just needs to play ball, he didn’t play with us in the spring, so he’s worked hard every single day to improve and I think he’s done that, he just needs to continue to do that."
On who is leading the punt returner competition:
“We’ve got lots of guys for punt return. Marquez Callaway has done it for a few years and has done a nice job. We have Bryce (Thompson), Kenny Solomon, Jordan Murphy, Ty Chandler, Eric Gray. We have guys back there that have worked at it. We have the same guys when it comes to kickoff return. The punt return job is wide open, so we’re going to continue to share duties and we’ll see as we get closer to the season.”
On what he’s seen from the pass rush throughout camp:
“We’ve got guys that have plenty of ability. We have to learn exactly what to do all the time and that there are consequences to our actions. It’s really good if I run under the tackle and I sack the quarterback, but it’s not good if I run under the tackle and the quarterback runs for a 30-yard gain or a five-yard gain on 3rd and 4 and you have the pattern matched. We have some guys that have ability that have to learn to play within the defense and they’ll do that. That comes with experience. That’s why we’re here, that’s why we’re practicing. Unfortunately for us is we need them to play right now. It’s not like we have a room full of guys where they get to wait their turn. The guys that play for us need to play immediately and that’s why they’re here.”
On things the young corners need to show the coaching staff to gain trust:
“A lot of people make a lot about Bryce (Thompson) and Alontae (Taylor). Bryce and Alontae played because they were the best players here. Both of them have a long way to go to improve as football players. I believe both have the skill set to play the position. They’re different, but they work hard. They like ball so they have a chance to be good football players down the road. Are they right now? They still have a ways to go. It’s good that Warren (Burrell) is here, because he creates competition. Jaylen (McCollough) hadn’t practiced all fall camp, so Baylen (Buchanan) was the other guy that had played. Warren has done a good job. Does he need to get stronger? Absolutely. Does he need to improve his play at the line of scrimmage? He does. But the guy has ball skills, he’s smart, he’s coachable, he’s instinctive and he plays with toughness. When you go out and play, he always shows up. Is he perfect? No, but he’s a freshman, nobody is. It’s good that he’s here. I’m glad that he’s here and I’m glad that he’s here to compete with those other guys, because we need it.”
On his impression of the offensive and defensive line play in Sunday’s scrimmage:
“Both sides of the ball are just very inconsistent. From a defensive standpoint, just lining up, lining up the proper way… based off the backfield formation, whether it’s back is in the three spot, it’s gun near, it’s gun far, or the ‘Y’ is off or the ‘Y’ is on. A lot of those things change how you should line up defensively. If I’m a three technique, maybe I need to be a little bit tighter, maybe I need to be a little bit looser. Maybe I’m getting a run key here, or maybe it’s a pass key. All that changes your stance, your alignment, all these things. Right now, we’re still like … with most of our players on the defensive line, we’re still in elementary school. Hopefully this next week we can get to junior high and the next week we can get like we’re in high school and eventually be on the college level before the season is over with. To me, I look at it like this. We all get in the car every day, when you all leave here you’re all going to get in the car, and you’re going to drive, whether you’re going out to Alcoa Highway or Kingston (Pike). When you get out there, just shut your eyes while you’re driving down the road and see how well you do. Because if you don’t know the things that I’m talking about and you’re trying to play defensive line, you’re basically playing with your eyes shut, so that’s not real easy to do. We have to do a good job of coaching these guys up and they’ve got to understand it and learn it. We can sit in a room and talk about it, right? We can show it to them, and they get it. They write it down, (say) ‘un-huh’, and they can give you the answers and all that, but when you go out there and the heat index is 105, do they really get it? When it’s the 65th minute of practice, do they really get it? When the offense is daggum sticking it down their throat, do they really get it? I don’t know. That’s why we’re trying to figure out who can and who can’t, right? Right now, we’ve got a ways to go there.
“Offensively, I see guys that show promise up front, but with that position it takes all five guys playing together up front. An offensive line, they’ve got to play together. It only takes one of them to mess it up. One guy messes it up, the other four do it right, it makes all five of them look bad. Whereas on the defensive line, three of them can mess it up and one of them can really not do what he’s supposed to do, but because he’s really good, he goes and makes a play, where everybody thinks the defense is pretty good. It’s funny how those two positions are perceived.”
On Jarrett Guarantano in the first scrimmage:
“Jarrett has had a really good fall camp. It was not his best day. We changed up the format of the scrimmage a little bit. We started with a third-down period just because that’s the way we wanted to start the scrimmage. We didn’t get off to a fast start there, but we improved as the scrimmage went. The one thing about the quarterback position is Jarrett has the ability to make the guys around him better and he has to do that a little bit better. He has had a really good camp and he has to continue to improve every single day.”
On what they are specifically looking for on the offensive line:
“We have to eliminate penalties and pre-snap penalties. We have to do a better job communicating both verbally and non-verbally. We have to better on third down. We have to finish our blocks. We have to finish the play. It is amazing how much hidden yardage is out there after every single play on both sides of the ball. If someone strains during the final seconds of the play, it can go from 2nd-and-2 to 2nd-and-7. We have to finish the last parts of the play. We have to take care of the football. Not that we turned the football over a whole lot during the scrimmage, but we have to be a team that takes care of the football. We were a little loose with the ball from some of the runners. We have to make sure we are sound when it comes to that.”
On bringing in a financial advisor to talk to the team:
“We have had a lot of really good speakers that have come in this camp. We try to have one every single night. It is all about education for our student-athletes. We have had one on how to treat the opposite sex, how to be a great leader, getting the proper amount of sleep, drugs and alcohol. There are lots of different topics that we bring different people in and we definitely want to do something about financial planning to make sure that these guys understand. The speaker brought up – and I remember it to when I was in college – there were credit cards out there and you could fill out an application and use a credit card for about 28 percent interest. They don’t really do that around campus. Anyhow, we wanted to educate our guys and they need to understand that right now they can use their own money to start making a little bit of money. They can pay themselves instead of living check-to-check. These guys have an opportunity to come into a lot of money, especially those who are on scholarship, those who qualify for FAFSA and cost of attendance. We want to help educate them so that when they leave here, they have a plan. They can look forward to being able to get something for their mom at Christmas or grandmother. It’s really good. We are trying to help our guys in a lot of different areas, and we are going to continue to do that.”
On having a timeline for settling on five starting offensive linemen:
“To me, as soon as you get comfortable. Sometimes people have a hard time being at their best, so I could see as the season goes, at lots of positions, one week one guy is playing and another week a different guy is playing. Maybe we play two guys at one position, who knows. The players control that, not us. My goal, maybe we have seven or eight guys that deserve to play so you play seven or eight guys. That has happened before, so I could see that happening. We have lots of competition on our football team and that’s why we’re still doing two fields. To coach everybody up and help them develop as players and we’re going to continue to do that.”
On when Baylen Buchanan might return:
“Baylen had a couple of issues during the offseason and we discovered that he has a narrowing of the spine. For his safety and precaution, we are holding him out. We have sent him to a lot of specialists across the country and are waiting and gathering information. He has a redshirt and one thing we have to figure out is, (is) this something that he’s had the whole time he’s played, or is this something that has happened right now? Being precautionary, we’ve held him out and we’re going to continue to do that because his safety is our first priority.”