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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey and graduate transfer receiver Velus Jones celebrate their 74-yard touchdown connection during the fourth quarter of last Saturday's 42-17 victory at Vanderbilt.

Playing both freshman Harrison Bailey and redshirt sophomore J.T. Shrout at quarterback has provided more good than bad the past two weekends for the Tennessee Volunteers, so they are sticking to that plan again this Saturday against No. 5 Texas A&M inside Neyland Stadium.

Bailey and Shrout combined on 20-of-31 passing for 297 yards and four touchdowns during last Saturday's 42-17 drubbing of Vanderbilt in Nashville, with Shrout getting intercepted once.

"I really think you would rather play just one, right?" Vols third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said Monday afternoon. "We've got two guys right now who I think are really competing hard in practice. We're giving them the same amount of reps, and I've told both of them that we're going to look at these last three games and give them the same opportunity.

"I mentioned before we played Florida that J.T.'s shoulder was bothering him a little bit, which made him a game-day decision that day, but he got in there and played really well, and I thought he played good Saturday, too. He had a couple of drops, and he obviously had one mistake there that we need to eliminate."

Bailey has played in five of nine games for the 3-6 Vols, completing 103 of 166 passes (62.1%) for 1,112 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions. Shrout has played in three games, completing 18 of 28 attempts (64.3%) for 211 yards with three scores and two interceptions.

"Because of the circumstances early in the season and not having a lot of scrimmages, this is a great opportunity for these guys to really get a chance to go out there in live-game action," Pruitt said. "I think they both continue to improve every week."

Giving two quarterbacks sizable reps during game weeks is common, according to Pruitt, who said it's often the third-string quarterback who gets left out. Brian Maurer has been the third-team quarterback the last two weeks and had a 22-yard run at Vanderbilt but turned an ankle on the play.

 

Job security

Although he received a contract extension from athletic director Phillip Fulmer two days before the start of this season, Pruitt is being asked questions about his status after a 2-0 start was followed by six straight double-digit losses before Saturday's triumph.

Asked Monday if he's heard from Fulmer regarding any security for next season, Pruitt said, "We've been focusing on every day at practice and the teams that we're playing. All of that stuff is always at the end of the season."

Three Southeastern Conference coaches — South Carolina's Will Muschamp, Vanderbilt's Derek Mason and Auburn's Gus Malzahn — have been fired this year despite financial strains on many athletic departments due to the coronavirus.

"Nobody knows the circumstances around each individual job," Pruitt said. "I have a lot of respect for all three of those men, and I think they've done a phenomenal job at the places that they've been."

 

Finale for seniors

Tennessee will hold Senior Day festivities before Saturday's kickoff against the Aggies, but Pruitt doesn't quite know what that will look like.

"There may be some guys who may participate and some guys who may not," Pruitt said. "We've really been focused on improving as a team every single day. It's kind of a unique circumstance we have with guys getting their eligibility back, and we've kind of treated it like they are juniors who may be thinking about declaring for the (NFL) draft.

"We're just going to wait until the season is over with. Some will participate and some won't. It will be their choice."

Pruitt said last week that sixth-year senior center Brandon Kennedy likely would be leaving to pursue a professional career and eventually get into coaching.

On Monday, fifth-year senior receiver Brandon Johnson announced through social media that he would be entering the NCAA transfer portal to play the 2021 season elsewhere. Johnson collected 19 catches for 231 yards in nine games this season.

 

Thompson honored

Junior cornerback Bryce Thompson, who had a one-handed interception that he turned into an 18-yard touchdown in the second quarter at Vanderbilt, was named Monday as the SEC co-defensive player of the week along with Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes. The touchdown by Thompson put Tennessee ahead to stay at 14-10.

"He only played on third down, but he made a big play in the game and kind of got us jump-started there," Pruitt said.

Thompson is the first Vols player to wear the "0" jersey that is being allowed by the NCAA this season.

"I always want to be different — I'm not going to lie — and I felt like that was the perfect number for me," Thompson said. "Coach Pruitt definitely gave me the go-ahead for it, and I'm honestly glad he did. I did not like wearing No. 20."

 

Beckwith's home

Freshman Dee Beckwith signed with Tennessee last winter out of Florence, Alabama, as the nation's No. 18 athlete prospect but seems to have found his home. Beckwith rushed twice for 24 yards against the Commodores.

"I like him at running back," Pruitt said. "When we recruited him, we didn't know exactly where we would play him. We just knew we wanted him on our team. He's a guy who has a lot of versatility. We started him off at wide receiver, but when he got here, he was a lot bigger than he was when we signed him.

"He's a guy who continues to grow and develop, and he's really good with the ball in his hand."

 

Odds and ends

Junior offensive lineman Cade Mays missed the Vanderbilt game and is considered day-to-day this week with the lower leg injury suffered against Florida. Pruitt said that sophomore defensive back Jaylen McCollough had his best game of the year. Pruitt on the 10 penalties for 94 yards against the Commodores: "I think we had nine penalties that were during the play, so we've got to make good judgments and finish people off the right way."

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

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