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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee running back Eric Gray breaks away from BYU linebacker Jackson Kaufusi on Sept. 7, 2019, at Neyland Stadium.

Updated with more information at 6:45 p.m. on July 18, 2020.

Tennessee went from a 5-7 regular season in 2018 to a 7-5 regular season last year, when the Volunteers notched an eighth triumph with a 23-22 Gator Bowl topping of Indiana.

Should the Vols produce another two-game improvement during Jeremy Pruitt's third season in Knoxville, Phil Steele wouldn't be surprised. The 350-page Phil Steele 2020 College Football Preview was released this past week, and the author of college football's most thorough preseason publication is brimming with optimism when it comes to Tennessee's prospects this fall.

"I think that this is a team that's close to 9-3," Steele said. "Jeremy Pruitt didn't take over an overly talented team. In his first spring, he had eight scholarship offensive linemen. This year he's got 16. When he took over, he had about five scholarship defensive linemen, and this year he says the defensive line is a strength and goes about 10 deep.

"In each area, you see depth, and you see much more talent from when he first stepped in."

Steele is hopeful of a season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences having already announced their intentions for league-only schedules in all fall semester sports.

Tennessee encountered two setbacks this past week, when senior tight end Austin Pope announced he had surgery with hopes of eliminating lingering lower back problems, and when senior defensive lineman Emmit Gooden was dismissed from the program after a felony arrest for domestic assault. Those situations may impact a team that has an early trip to Oklahoma in addition to rivalry games with Florida, Alabama and Georgia, but they shouldn't pack the same punch compared to previous years due to a deeper roster.

"Seven of their eight units rank among the top units in the front of my magazine," said Steele, who was a guest of "Press Row" on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 FM. "The only one that doesn't is at receiver, where they have talent and speed, but can they step up and replace Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway and be go-to receivers? They have my No. 6 offensive line nationally and my No. 13 defensive line."

Tennessee's eight returning starters on each side of the ball before Pope's announcement matched Kentucky and Texas A&M for the most in the Southeastern Conference, yet Steele's praise for the Vols is the result of more than just any stat or trend he has compiled. Steele talked with more than 110 of the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision coaches for his magazine, and his conversation with Pruitt still resonates among his most memorable.

"I told Coach Pruitt pointedly, 'That first year, almost all of your losses were by 25 points or more,' and I asked him about this year," Steele said. "He said he believes they can compete and beat any of the teams on his schedule, including Oklahoma and Alabama. I'm going to go with that type of confidence, because I didn't hear that same confidence in year one or year two.

"That's why I think they'll be close to that 9-3 range this year."

 

Davis will transfer

Tennessee reserve safety Brandon Davis announced Saturday via Twitter that he is entering the NCAA transfer portal. The 5-foot-10, 160-pound redshirt sophomore from New Orleans played in only game last season, against the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and did not record any stats.

"Thank you, Vol Nation," Davis wrote. "You have been supportive the whole way. Nothing but love. I made friends at UT who are going to last forever, and I'm thankful for everyone who took me in."

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

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