Tennessee won six straight football games late last season before COVID-19 made an impact on sports, and during the pandemic the Volunteers have produced a recruiting surge over the spring and summer that has yielded a top-10 class for the 2021 cycle.
Vols players insist they won't be defeated by the coronavirus now, even though 44 players missed last Saturday's practice, with most of the absences due to either positive tests or contact tracing.
"I would say that the team morale has been high, and I don't think it's really hurt what we have going," fifth-year senior receiver Brandon Johnson said Friday afternoon during a Zoom call. "We kind of knew what we were getting into during this pandemic, and we knew that at certain periods of time there may be people out for X reasons. I just think we were ready for the things that may happen."
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said Thursday that he's lost count of who's available and not available as the Vols reach the two-week mark before their Sept. 26 opener at South Carolina, but the players don't seem fazed. Johnson has not detected any timing trouble in the passing game when components have been missing, adding, "I think we've done a great job of filling in where we need to fill in."
A scratched scrimmage last Saturday and a shortened scrimmage Wednesday night inside Neyland Stadium do not seem to be concerning factors either.
"Scrimmages are nice for us, because they get us ready for game-day scenarios, but I'm game ready every day," senior kicker Brent Cimaglia said. "I go out there to kick the kick and be game ready, so the scrimmages are helpful, but the practices are, too."
Cimaglia echoed Johnson's thoughts on the team remaining upbeat during this difficult and unknown stretch, and he pointed out that healthy players are in continual communication with those who are quarantined.
"We all kind of talk every day, even if it's to check up on them," Cimaglia said. "We're always on a Zoom call or texting or calling each other. We're all really close, and for us, the morale really didn't change. We have a goal to get set for South Carolina, and we're going to do that each and every day.
"Honestly, the senior class has kind of stepped up as leaders, and we've kind of pushed everybody."
Despite the stout morale and feeling prepared for what might transpire during this unprecedented preseason, players admit there are times when practices almost seem surreal when they look around and see the lack of bodies.
"This whole time has been crazy, and you've got to take it for what it's worth and still go out there with a positive attitude and ready to compete," senior running back Ty Chandler said. "I feel like we've brought that approach to every practice, and I feel like we'll be fine. We've gone out there ready to practice knowing that we want to take that next step to keep going forward and push this team to a level we know we can be at."
Said Johnson: "People came into this camp with the right mindset, and that goes a long way. Everybody has kept their head on straight. We know what goal we're trying to reach."