KNOXVILLE — There was a time this season when Bryce Thompson was wondering whether he'd ever put a University of Tennessee football jersey on again.
After a misdemeanor domestic assault charge led to an indefinite suspension to start the season, Thompson was reinstated to the team prior to the Volunteers' 45-0 win over the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in mid-September, although he only practiced that week and didn't play after his charges had been dismissed. He got his first game action a week later at Florida and has been working to get back to the speed that led to him earning Freshman All-American honors a year ago.
Saturday night showed that he may be pretty close to that.
Thompson picked off three passes — tying his 2018 total — and spearheaded a Tennessee defense that forced four turnovers by the University of Alabama at Birmingham in a 30-7 homecoming win in front of 85,791 at Neyland Stadium. His interception total was the most by a Tennessee player since Deon Grant had three in a 1999 victory over Auburn.
Now 4-5 for the season, the Vols have games at Kentucky (Nov. 9) and at Missouri (Nov. 23) before hosting their regular-season finale against Vanderbilt on Nov. 30. They need wins in at least two of the games to become bowl eligible for the first time since a 9-4 season in 2016 that included a 38-24 Music City Bowl win over Nebraska.
Shawn Shamburger, Aubrey Solomon and Darrell Taylor had sacks for the Vols, who held UAB (6-2) to 237 yards of total offense, the Blazers' lowest total of the season. The visitors rushed for just 63 yards, the fewest allowed during the Jeremy Pruitt era.
Thompson said the time away from the team "did hurt" but that it was a "learning lesson."
"I'm glad to be back on the team with my family," he said. "I learned how to handle situations different and to not take anything for granted.
"I feel like with anybody, they would kind of be thankful to have this opportunity, and that's where I am. I'm extremely grateful and couldn't thank the University of Tennessee and Coach Pruitt enough."
The quarterback position continued to be a revolving door Saturday. J.T. Shrout started each half at quarterback and became the fourth signal-caller to win a game this season for the Vols, but Jarrett Guarantano played most of the game behind center, throwing for 147 yards and a touchdown to freshman Eric Gray despite playing with a cast on his left hand after having surgery last Sunday to repair a broken bone suffered in the win over South Carolina. Jauan Jennings came in and had a 2-yard rushing touchdown.
Ty Chandler, who ran for 85 yards, also had a rushing score for the Vols.
The Vols managed only 302 offensive yards but had three Brent Cimaglia field goals to build a 9-0 lead.
The Blazers prevented the shutout when Dylan Hopkins threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Lucious Stanley with 2:35 remaining in the game.
But, led by Thompson, the damage had been done.
"Bryce has just done what he's supposed to do," Pruitt said. "Obviously it hurt when he was not practicing, but he's improving. He's been banged up for a couple of weeks now, but he's a tough kid that really wants to play and likes to play. He's continuing to improve and he should: He's playing more ball, he's older; he's matured; he's getting stronger; he's been in the system a little longer.
"He needs to continue to do that."