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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt reacts during an SEC matchup with Missouri on Nov. 17, 2018, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

Team bonding has been taken to an entirely different level this preseason with the 14 Southeastern Conference football programs.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced players to stick together and be mindful of other students who may not share their passion to start and finish the 10-game league season that starts Sept. 26. There is also the coming together in the fight against racial injustice, with Tennessee football players joining other Volunteers student-athletes Saturday for a peaceful march on campus.

On Monday, it was Alabama's turn, as Crimson Tide players walked with other student-athletes in a show of solidarity.

"Saturday was one day, and it was a really, really good thing for our players and everybody who was involved, but that was one day," Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said Monday night on a Zoom call. "This is something that we want to help create a change that's not only going to change for one day but for the next day, the day after that and for generations to come. It's something that I personally believe in, our players on our team believe in and our coaching staff does.

"We're going to continue to work hard to create change."

In Tuscaloosa, the march was led by 68-year-old coach Nick Saban, who grew up in West Virginia and has witnessed countless changes in social climates. That Saban was out front in the demonstration warmed the hearts of several of his players, including fifth-year senior Chris Owens, who is vying for the starting center spot.

"Coach Saban was very supportive," Owens said Monday afternoon. "This wasn't something we made him do. This was something he wanted to do because he truly does care about his players.

"We didn't have to pull teeth. He truly cares about us, and he wanted to let everybody know that he has our backs."

Whether through marches, one-day practice boycotts or even passionate team meetings, players are getting to know one another like never before, with these events following some unexpected time apart. When the SEC canceled spring practices in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the players went to their respective hometowns and were away from each other until early June.

Ever since they've been back on campuses, they've been placed in the closest thing to a bubble that can be developed on the college front.

"I've always felt since I've been here that our players have been close," Pruitt said, "and we've developed a culture around here in which everybody has a voice and everybody respects each other and respects each other's opinion. Whatever goes on here, we keep it in here."

The SEC announced Tuesday that Tennessee's first two games this season will be televised by the SEC Network. The Sept. 26 opener at South Carolina will kick off at 7:30 p.m., while the Oct. 3 home opener against Missouri will start at noon.

Tennessee's Nov. 7 game at Arkansas will have a 7:30 kickoff on ESPN, but those were the only starting times involving the Vols that were released.

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

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AP photo by Gary Cosby Jr. / Alabama football coach Nick Saban leads his team and other student-athletes Monday in Tuscaloosa, Ala., as they march to voice their support for social justice.

 

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