KNOXVILLE — Six days after taking all 49 snaps during a Sunday night scrimmage reserved for players who had not competed this season, Tennessee quarterback Harrison Bailey made his collegiate debut early in the fourth quarter of Saturday's 34-7 loss to Kentucky inside Neyland Stadium.
Bailey had a 24-yard completion to fellow freshman Malachi Wideman to Kentucky's 22-yard line and led the Volunteers to the 10. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder from the Atlanta suburb of Marietta then threw three consecutive incompletions to end the threat and preserve the Wildcats' 27-point margin of victory.
"It was an opportunity to put him in the game," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "He's not had a lot of reps as far as the game plan versus Kentucky, but it was a good chance to get him out there and let him get some reps and let some of these other guys get some reps. He made one nice throw there, and he'll make a lot better throws and do a lot more stuff as time goes on. He's a hard worker."
Bailey was sidelined for the start of preseason camp for reasons related to COVID-19, while sophomore quarterback Brian Maurer missed multiple practices due to a hamstring injury. Pruitt said the quarterback room is now healthy and full and "should be gaining some strength," but that's obviously not happening right now.
The stat line for Bailey's debut was 1-for-4 passing for the 24 yards.
"I think Harrison did a great job going out there for his first time out on the field in a college game," Vols sophomore running back Eric Gray said. "I think it was good for him."
According to a Sports Illustrated report released before the game, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Texas A&M were fined $100,000 each by Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey for violating league guidelines on the proper wearing of face coverings.
Pruitt wore a different mask Saturday compared to the first three games.
"I can tell you that I wore my mask wrong," Pruitt said. "I've tried to be a good leader in our organization and do things the way they're supposed to be done. During our last game, I had problems communicating, and I pulled my mask down and didn't realize it until the game was over.
"I felt like I needed something that didn't limit my communication skills during the game, so I went with another mask and it seemed to work a lot better, so I'll probably stick with it."
Pruitt defended the entire program by stating there have been no positive tests the past four weeks.
"If you look at the numbers and based off of what I hear, we've probably have had the least amount of COVID as anybody," he said.
Gray's wasted day
Gray was the bright spot in Tennessee's long afternoon, rushing 24 times for 128 yards and 5.3 yards per carry.
"It was good — 128 yards — but it wasn't enough," he said.
Senior Ty Chandler accounted for Tennessee's lone touchdown with his 4-yard run that pulled the Vols within 17-7 with 1:36 before halftime. Yet it was Gray who had nine consecutive runs that totaled 61 yards to set up Chandler's short score.
"That was a big testament to the O-line," Gray said. "They came out and blocked well. We pretty much ran the same play over and over and felt like we had them on the ropes. They were getting tired, so we kept going fast and kept driving. That was the drive we needed to put the ball into the end zone."
At the start of the third quarter, Gray carried three times for 9 yards out to Tennessee's 30-yard line. The Vols appeared to be going for the first down on fourth-and-1 before the punt team took the field.
"I was definitely hoping we would go for it at that point," Gray said, "but Coach Pruitt has been in this game for a long time and knows what to do, so I put that all on him."
Lacking in effort
Throwing an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown can be infuriating enough, but what made it worse for Tennessee is that Wildcats middle linebacker Jamin Davis, all 6-4 and 234 pounds of him, was never threatened in running it back.
"Where are the offensive players to get the guy on the ground?" Pruitt said. "I've been coaching a long time, 20-something years, and I've seen more defensive touchdowns against our offense or the other team starting on our 10-, 8-, 15- or 25-yard line in all my coaching in these last three years. It's something that has to stop for us to, number one, have a chance to win the damn game."
Gray didn't disagree.
"There is really no explanation for it," he said. "You can't coach effort. We've got to go out there and play hard every play."
Odds and ends
Tennessee still holds a commanding 81-26-9 series lead against Kentucky and a 33-3 mark since 1985. Vols sophomore left tackle Wanya Morris had to be helped off the field midway through the third quarter. Tennessee junior cornerback Alontae Taylor, who injured a hamstring a week earlier during the third quarter of the loss at Georgia, did not dress out. Sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o was Tennessee's lone midfield representative for the pregame coin toss.