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VOL. 133 | NO. 80 | Friday, April 20, 2018

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Dave Link

Pruitt Pumped Up for ‘Exciting’ Spring Game

Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt loosened up a bit as the Vols went through spring practices last week, talking at length about individual players for the first time.

UT head coach Jeremy Pruitt has shaken things up a bit this spring with position changes and a new format for the Orange and White Game. (AP photo | Caitie McMekin/Knoxville News Sentinel)

Big deal? Yeah, probably for media and fans starved for information about Pruitt’s first team of Vols.

There have been mere snippets of viewing chances for media this spring, and Pruitt has chosen his words carefully during press conferences. The former Alabama defensive coordinator is running a tight ship, Nick Saban-style.

UT fans will get their first chance to see the 2018 Vols on Saturday in the DISH Orange and White Game at Neyland Stadium (2 p.m. EDT, SEC Network). Pruitt wants to see a big crowd and game-type atmosphere.

“My challenge is for our fan base,” Pruitt says. “The first two scrimmages (weren’t) open, but the spring game obviously is. The best way to put (the players) in an adverse situation is to show up. That presence will create pressure, which will prepare them for next season.”

UT fans will see more of a full-scale scrimmage for this year’s spring game than the controlled format under Butch Jones in previous years.

It will be the first-team offense on one team against the first-team defense on the other team. With the first-team offense will be the second-team defense, and with the first-team defense will be the second-team offense.

“We’re gonna format it, so it’s exciting, I hope,” Pruitt adds. “The last four minutes of each half it will be 2-minute (offense). It doesn’t matter what the score is, so 2-minute (offenses) back and forth, so there’s a little bit of excitement.”

Fans won’t see many blitzes (if any) but will see UT quarterbacks Jarrett Guarantano and Will McBride throwing the deep ball.

“No one wants to see you run zone or power over and over and sit on the clock,” Pruitt says, “so we want to play and put our players out there to compete.”

The autograph session that has been part of the Orange and White Game in the past has been moved to a date in early August during fall camp with plans to open a UT practice to fans in Neyland Stadium. After the August Fan Day open practice, fans will be able to meet the players and coaches and collect autographs.

For now, Vol Nation better absorb all the football they can Saturday at Neyland Stadium. Here are some things keep an eye on:

WHO PLAYS WHERE?

Pruitt made several position moves during the team’s 10th practice last Tuesday and says more could come before and during the spring game.

Junior Tyler Byrd moved from the defensive secondary back to wide receiver, which comes as no surprise. Byrd, a four-star cornerback at Naples (Florida) High School, spent his first two seasons at Tennessee as a wide receiver before moving to the secondary at the start of spring.

Greg Emerson, a January enrollee, a four-star defensive end at North Side High in Jackson, moved to the offensive line for UT’s 10th practice. Also, moving from the defensive line to the offensive line were sophomores Matthew Butler and Eric Crosby.

January enrollee Alontae Taylor, a four-star wide receiver from Coffee County High in Manchester, worked with cornerbacks in the 10th and 11th practices and last Saturday’s second scrimmage.

However, Taylor’s future with the Vols appears to be with the offense, and the move to cornerback was out of necessity this spring.

“He has really good ability,” Pruitt adds of Taylor. “I think we are going to do it one more day and let him scrimmage (last Saturday) with the defense and go from there. It’s one of those deals to build depth down the road. He told me today he thinks if he does it (play cornerback) for a few more days, he will have it down, and if we need him in the fall, he can come help.”

Sophomore tight end LaTrell Bumphus, who played at Hardin County High in Savannah, got some work on the defensive line last week.

“I think LaTrell Bumphus played defense in high school, and you want to figure out who the best players are,” Pruitt says. “I go back to my high school background (as a coach). Sometimes you had to play guys on both sides of the ball.

“When it comes down to the last two minutes, I’d like to have the best players on the field. If we lose two or three guys at a certain position, and we need to make some moves to figure out the best way and maybe have to change who we are, we want to be able to do that. We don’t want October or November to be the first time they’ve ever done it.”

Sophomore Princeton Fant of La Vergne High near Nashville leads the Vols in position changes. Fant, listed on the spring roster as a wide receiver, was thought to be moving to tight end, but began the spring at running back, played inside linebacker for the first scrimmage, and was back at running back last week.

“Well, he’s learning the (running back) position,” Pruitt says of Fant. “I think he played wide receiver in high school. He was recruited here to play tight end. We originally moved him to running    back because of lack of numbers for the position. Watching (him) in winter conditioning, he’s kind of had some athletic ability about him, and I like the fact that he weighs 225 pounds. I like big backs.”

QUARTERBACK’S WORK

Redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano should be the No. 1 quarterback after getting first-team reps in the spring, with sophomore Will McBride working with the second team.

Guarantano, who threw two interceptions in the first scrimmage, isn’t a lock for the starting job in fall camp. There’s much speculation graduate transfer Keller Chryst from Stanford could push for the No. 1 job when he arrives this summer. Chryst was 11-2 as Stanford’s starting quarterback in 2016 and ’17.

As for the spring game, Pruitt wants to see the intangibles of Guarantano and McBride.

“We tell our guys all the time that there’s no perfect players, there’s no perfect coaches,” Pruitt points out. “You’ve got to be able to play the next play. If you throw a 60-yard touchdown, what are you going to do the next snap? If you turn the ball over, if you don’t make the right check, if you play very poorly in the first quarter, is that going to affect how you play the next three quarters? 

“To me, the biggest thing about playing quarterback is how do you affect your teammates.”

Freshman J.T. Shrout, a pro-style quarterback from Newhall, California, arrives in the summer along with Chryst. Shrout was a longtime California commitment who flipped to Tennessee on the first day of the December signing period.

WILL HALL RETURN?

Pruitt says he expects junior offensive lineman Chance Hall to return to action – perhaps before or during the spring game – and his healthy return is a huge necessity in 2018 with the shortage of O-linemen.

Hall, who missed the 2017 season with a knee injury and had recent offseason surgery, would be a starter if he’s 100 percent. He’s started 13 games and played in 16 games in his first two season despite having injury issues.

Pruitt hinted Hall might return at the end of spring, or for the game.

“Chance wants to play,” Pruitt adds. “It’s kind of unusual, when I first got here, he and I had a conversation. For him, it’s been awhile since he had played, and I didn’t really know his story, so we sat down and talked, and I think Chance is fired up about having an opportunity to get back out there, and that’s good to see. We need him back.”

WHO ELSE PLAYS?

Hall was one of several injured players Pruitt says he expects back full speed at some point – if not this spring, then in fall camp – a list including wide receiver Jauan Jennings, offensive lineman Trey Smith, linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., and safety Todd Kelly Jr.

Jennings, a redshirt junior from Murfreesboro’s Blackman High, is expected to be one of Tennessee’s top players in 2018 after missing last season with a wrist injury sustained in the opener against Georgia Tech.

Kirkland Jr. missed all of last season due to a knee injury and returned to practice on a limited basis last week. He’s started 16 games and played in 21 games in two seasons.

Junior linebacker Daniel Bituli of Nashville Christian School was limited to individual drill work due to injury early in the spring and last week returned to the practice field for team periods. He led the Vols in tackles last season.

“Daniel is starting to advance,” Pruitt says. “He participated (April 12), he practiced today. … Darrin took the next step. He’ll probably be back next week (for the spring game) so it will be possible to get these guys some reps as we move forward.”

Pruitt acknowledges “it will be close” if Kirkland Jr. and Bituli play in the spring game.

Smith, a freshman All-American from University School of Jackson has been out this spring with an undisclosed illness.

“We have several guys that if we practiced for two more weeks, we would have a bunch of guys that would be cleared to practice, but we don’t, so it is what it is,” Pruitt says. “We do have guys that have started to mix it out at practice, just maybe not in full contact. It’s good for them to get some reps.”

SPECIAL TEAMS CONCERNS

Pruitt had big concerns with the Vols’ special teams after the first scrimmage April 7, so the spring game should be a gauge of progress or not.

There are big voids to fill with the losses of starting punter Trevor Daniel, starting kickoff returner Evan Berry, and part-time starting kicker Aaron Medley.

Junior receiver Marquez Callaway won the starting punt returner’s job last season and averaged 8.38 yards per return.

Sophomore running back Ty Chandler of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy led the Vols in kickoff returns last season (17 returns for a 24.47-yard average, including a 91-yard TD return.) Callaway returned six kickoffs, averaging 8.17 yards, and sophomore running back Tim Jordan returned three with an 18.33 average.

“There are some guys that have experience from doing it before, but we’re really early in it,” Pruitt says. “We’re repping a lot of guys in specialty, so we’ll see.”

Sophomore Brent Cimaglia split the kicking duties with Daniel last season, and freshman punter Paxton Brooks did double-duty as a kicker/punter at Airport High in West Columbia, South Carolina. Brooks is a January enrollee and should get some kicks in the spring game.

“We have to improve there, just like every position,” Pruitt says. “We need to get better with our snappers, better with our holders. We have some new holders and have some new specialists. Like I told those guys out there today, I’m going to be at the game, so I don’t need to make you nervous.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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