Several minutes after Tennessee opened its 2020 football season with a 31-27 win at South Carolina last Saturday night, Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt praised the dedication of senior edge rusher Deandre Johnson.
Pruitt said Johnson chose to move into a campus dorm this past summer, and the 6-foot-3, 255-pound senior from Miami explained this week the several reasons why.
"Well, the biggest thing was I didn't have to pay rent, so that was a big lift off my shoulders," a smiling Johnson said on a Zoom call. "I was just able to focus on myself and just kind of dial in and settle down. I had a lot of things going on around me, so it just helped me settle down.
"I'm just more focused. Now that I'm back off (campus), I kind of used some of the things that I learned in the summer, and they're helping me now. I'm just even-keeled right now and focused on the things that I need to be focused on."
Not exactly the first Tennessee defender who rolled off the tongue before the season, Johnson erupted inside Williams-Brice Stadium for a career-high six tackles, a career-best 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. The forced fumble was the fourth of his career, but his 2.5 sacks matched last year's total, which was a single-season best.
Two of Johnson's sacks of Collin Hill occurred on third down, including one early in the fourth quarter that forced the Gamecocks to settle for a Parker White field goal and a 24-24 tie instead of potentially taking the lead.
The Southeastern Conference recognized the former three-star prospect and 2017 early enrollee as its defensive lineman of the week. Johnson's 2.5 sacks were the most of any league player on the inaugural Saturday.
"Deandre had a really good camp, and he's one of the guys who has not missed a practice," Pruitt said this week. "He's been here every day, and it showed. He's practiced well every day, and he's a guy who has been in our system for three years and has some maturity about him. He worked really hard in the offseason, but he's got to do it week in and week out.
"We need him to do that."
Johnson is up for that task, admitting the league honor "felt great" but that many more challenges await.
The first of those occurs Saturday inside Neyland Stadium, when the No. 21 Vols host Missouri. The Tigers posted consecutive 50-17 whippings at Tennessee's expense during the 2017-18 seasons, but the Vols won last year's meeting 24-20 at Faurot Field and are double-digit favorites for the noon showdown on the SEC Network.
According to Johnson, who came off the bench last weekend and has just four starts among his 32 career appearances, the Vols are about to encounter a very different offense compared to South Carolina.
"Last week was kind of a downhill rushing attack," he said. "This week, there is kind of more zone and a lot of quarterback reads, so we've just got to be disciplined off the edge and make sure we're looking at the right things as a defense and just running to the ball.
"We've got to run to the ball a little better this week."
Green light for Mays
The SEC on Wednesday night announced the approval of "a number of transfer waiver requests that originated from member institutions seeking exceptions to the longstanding league bylaw that requires intraconference transfers to serve a year in residence before being able to compete."
That opened the door to immediate eligibility for former Knoxville Catholic and University of Georgia offensive lineman Cade Mays, who quickly posted on Twitter: "Today is a great day for all of college athletics."
Tennessee's tight end position became a free-for-all following Austin Pope's back surgery this summer, and the opening game didn't change that.
"I think it's a position where we have several guys who are capable of contributing there," Pruitt said Wednesday on the SEC teleconference. "There is competition, and it will be week by week, which is good and bad. Nobody has separated himself, which is kind of the bad, but the good is that there are guys to choose from."
Odds and ends
Senior guard Trey Smith got "banged up" at South Carolina but has practiced this week and is fine, Pruitt said. Senior defensive lineman Darel Middleton practiced Wednesday, while senior defensive back Shawn Shamburger did not. Both players missed the opener for reasons related to COVID-19. Pruitt said junior cornerback Alontae Taylor played the best game of his career at South Carolina. Pruitt on freshman snapper Will Albright maintaining that role: "I made a lot more mistakes the other night than he did, I can assure you."