Will third time be a charm? Tennessee still seeks opening win under Pruitt

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Tennessee's Ty Chandler (8) fumbles as he is hit by Georgia State's Hardrick Willis (90). Chandler's turnover lead to the first Panther touchdown. The University of Tennessee Volunteers opened the season wit the Georgia State Panthers at Neyland Stadium on August 31, 2019.

Midway through this extended preseason for the Tennessee Volunteers, third-year football coach Jeremy Pruitt threw out the staggering number of 44 players having to miss practice, with COVID-related issues accounting for a majority of those absences.

During Monday afternoon's inaugural weekly news conference of this delayed 2020 season, Pruitt used an even larger number to reflect his optimism compared to earlier this month.

"We've got 50 more players who are able to play this Saturday than we did that Saturday," he said.

Pruitt did not reveal any specifics regarding players who could miss this week's trip to South Carolina (7:30 p.m. on SEC Network) as the result of positive tests or contact tracing, citing that it wouldn't be fair from a competitive standpoint. He added that exact COVID numbers would not be released before any of Tennessee's 10 league contests.

The Vols are opening a season against a Southeastern Conference foe for the first time since 1988, when they fell 28-17 at Georgia in what would be the 25th and final season for legendary Bulldogs coach Vince Dooley.

"Our guys are really excited about getting the chance to play this week," Pruitt said. "I'm really proud of how everybody in our organization has really stuck together to find a way for us to improve daily."

Tennessee has yet to win an opener under Pruitt, losing 40-14 against West Virginia in Charlotte two years ago and getting stunned 38-30 by Georgia State last season in Neyland Stadium. The Vols were 26-point favorites entering last year's opener but allowed 160 rushing yards and 4.8 yards per carry in the second half alone against the Panthers.

"I would say it's an eye-opener," former Vols outside linebacker Darrell Taylor said afterward. "It makes us realize that no one is going to come out on the field and just give us the game."

Said current senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano: "I think there are a lot of things to learn from this game."

The Vols lost two fumbles, threw an interception and turned the ball over twice on downs, failing to score a touchdown on eight consecutive possessions after taking a 14-7 lead in the final seconds of the first quarter.

Given that Georgia State, a Sun Belt member, was coming off a 2-10 season in 2018, last year's opening loss is arguably the worst in program history.

"If you turn the ball over five times and only get one turnover, you're not going to win, and that doesn't matter if it's the opener or the last game," Pruitt said Monday. "That's the bottom line. You can't make mental mistakes. You've got to be able to get off the field on third down. You've got to score touchdowns in the red area, and you've got to keep them from scoring touchdowns in the red area.

"It's the same thing with every week."

The loss to the Mountaineers two years ago snapped Tennessee's nine-year win streak in openers, which was extended with a 20-13 overtime topping of Appalachian State in 2016 and a 42-41 double-overtime outlasting of Georgia Tech in 2017.

Cade Mays update

Pruitt had not received any word from the league office Monday afternoon regarding the status of junior offensive lineman Cade Mays, who is seeking immediate eligibility after transferring from Georgia and was recently cleared by the NCAA.

"I'm sure that we will, because it makes too much sense not to," Pruitt said. "We've planned all along for Cade to be able to play. If you look at what went into the waiver process, it's pretty evident the young man needs an opportunity to play, or deserves an opportunity to play."

Still open-ended

Guarantano is Tennessee's clear-cut starter at quarterback, but Pruitt has yet to announce the backup among redshirt sophomore J.T. Shrout, sophomore Brian Maurer and true freshman Harrison Bailey.

"It's still open-ended headed into the weekend," he said. "We'll make a decision over the next couple of days to see who gives us the best opportunity. Both Harrison and Brian have missed practices for different reasons during fall camp, so J.T. has had an opportunity to take more reps, but we're giving both of those other guys a chance."

Sitting this one out

Vols fifth-year senior running back Carlin Fils-aime will not be playing this season, but that doesn't mean the recent graduate is through competing.

"He possibly may come back in January, but we've yet to decide that," Pruitt said. "He's a guy who has done everything we've asked him to do as a player since I've been here, but he's unfortunately had some injuries that have kept him off the field. He's a great student, a role model, a good teammate, and we would love to have him back for sure."

The 5-foot-11, 180-pounder from Naples, Florida, has 52 career carries for 309 yards (5.9 per rush) and five touchdowns. He played in three games last season but didn't have a carry.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Tennessee head coach expresses frustration with the Vols. The University of Tennessee Volunteers opened the season wit the Georgia State Panthers at Neyland Stadium on August 31, 2019.