Vols notebook: Despite Harrison Bailey's first start, QB competition goes on

Tennessee Athletics photo by Kate Luffman / Tennessee quarterback Harrison Bailey passes during Saturday's home game against Florida. Bailey, a freshman making his first start for the Vols, was 14-of-21 passing for 111 yards with a touchdown and was sacked five times.

KNOXVILLE - When Tennessee took a 7-3 lead over Florida on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Harrison Bailey to Eric Gray nearing the midway stages of the second quarter, the freshman quarterback had compiled a 202.3 passer rating compared to a 154.8 clip for Gators senior Kyle Trask.

That wonderful snapshot for Bailey was fleeting as Florida roared back Saturday to snag a 31-7 lead on its way to a 31-19 victory inside Neyland Stadium, but it was better than no snapshot at all.

Bailey, sophomore Brian Maurer and redshirt sophomore J.T. Shrout each played quarterback for the Vols, with Shrout guiding them to a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns on drives of 94 and 96 yards. Fifth-year senior Jarrett Guarantano has not practiced the past two weeks, said coach Jeremy Pruitt, who recently revealed that several of his players had been out due to contact tracing for COVID-19, including one of his quarterbacks.

Who starts next Saturday's game at Vanderbilt, provided the Commodores have enough players to stage the game, may not be known or announced any time soon.

"Every week, we go out there and see who competes in practice and does the best job of affecting the guys around them." Pruitt said, "and we will do that as long as I'm the head football coach here at every position, so you don't have to ask me that ever, ever again."

Bailey played most of Saturday's contest and completed 14 of 21 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown. Shrout completed 12 of 14 attempts, including a 22-yard scoring strike to Velus Jones with 27 seconds remaining.

The plan, according to Pruitt, was to play both Bailey and Shrout.

"With Harrison, we weren't creating a lot of explosive plays, but we were kind of changing the momentum of the game there until we gave up the drive right before half," Pruitt said. "In the second half, there were a couple of plays we could have been a little more aggressive on, and J.T. is two years older than Harrison from an experience standpoint, so we wanted to get him going.

"I thought J.T. did a nice job there at the end."

Pruitt said Shrout had two really good weeks of work, and it was Shrout's first appearance since being intercepted in the 34-7 loss to Kentucky on Sept. 17. Shrout entered the game against the Wildcats after two pick-sixes by Guarantano.

"Obviously the Kentucky game wasn't the outcome I wanted," Shrout said. "I just stayed the course and prepared the same way as if I was going to be the starter."

Shrout said it's up to the coaches to decide who starts next, adding that it will be nice having Guarantano back in the competition.

"It's definitely been a little bit different," Shrout said. "He's always kind of been the lead dog in the room, and we've missed him a lot this last week and a half that he wasn't out there. It meant a lot of reps for Brian, Harrison and me and getting all three of us ready to go."

Improved quarter

Florida opened the second half with a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that consumed just 89 seconds and put the Gators in control at 24-7.

The third quarter ended with the same score, showing at least a little bit of improvement by the Vols. In Tennessee's current six-game losing streak, the Vols have been outscored 78-7 in the third quarter.

"You can just see that everybody is starting to finish and to see how important it is to come out after halftime fired up," Gray said. We're kind of starting to turn that corner of playing harder after halftime and not just lay down in the second half."

Gray's hopes for a 1,000-yard season took a hit against the Gators, as his 12 carries for 47 yards put him at 698 with two games remaining.

Mays and Mays

Brothers Cade and Cooper Mays started together for the first time this season, with Cade, the junior who played his first two seasons at Georgia, at right guard and Cooper, a freshman, at center in place of sixth-year senior Brandon Kennedy.

When asked about the younger Mays, Pruitt said he liked what he heard.

"It's hard for me to know exactly how he played," Pruitt said, "but listening to our offensive coaches on the headphones, I didn't feel like there was an identifying problem with the fronts or anything like that. From his poise and execution there, he must have done a pretty good job. I didn't see any wild snaps or anything like that.

"Coop is a tough kid and a smart kid, and he's only going to get better. I think it's good he got to play against these guys."

Odds and ends

Florida increased its series advantage to 30-20. ... Paxton Brooks had a 56-yard punt to the Florida 10-yard line with 5:40 remaining in the first quarter and thew a perfect pass to Jimmy Holiday on a fake-punt attempt during the second quarter that was dropped by the freshman. ... Pruitt said sophomore receiver Ramel Keyton will not finish the year with the team in order to focus on academics. ... Pruitt on Florida rushing 17 times for 19 yards: "I didn't even realize they ran the football, to be honest. It seemed like they threw it every snap."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.