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Tennessee Athletics photo by Caleb Jones / Tennessee sophomore running back Eric Gray looks for room to roam during Tuesday's practice on Haslam Field.

Simply making it to game week will not score the Tennessee Volunteers any points during Saturday night's football opener at South Carolina.

Yet the Vols are not taking this feat for granted as the preseason practices continue to dwindle.

"It's definitely surreal being out there," sophomore running back Eric Gray said this week on a Zoom call. "We are so glad to be out there. Everybody is pumped up for the game. We just can't wait for Saturday."

Tennessee was able to conduct two spring practices, with the second workout occurring March 12. That was the same day the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference and other leagues around the country chose to abruptly halt their respective men's basketball tournaments due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. On March 13, the SEC announced that spring football practices would be suspended and that spring games would not be staged.

The Vols were scheduled to go on spring break after their two practices, but the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in players heading back to their hometowns indefinitely and with a slew of uncertainty about a 2020 season.

"There were so many unknowns back in March when everyone had to go home and no spring and all of that," Gray said. "There were so many unknowns. We knew nothing for so long."

Said sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o: "When we got quarantined, it was kind of hard to see a football season happening."

April was an athletic wasteland, with NASCAR's return without fans serving as May's highlight. PGA Tour tournaments started in mid-June, and the SEC allowed voluntary workouts on campuses starting June 8.

Tennessee third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt revealed the Vols didn't have any positive COVID-19 tests in June, but that was not the case when players returned from a Fourth of July break. More hurdles were on the way, but at least the players were getting accustomed to the "new normal" they were encountering and had measures to combat it.

"Being honest, sitting back in April, we didn't know what would happen," senior center Brandon Kennedy said. "As a team, and also me as a person, we were just kind of concerned and there was a lot of uncertainty. Now that we've been able to go through the summer and have gotten to deal with COVID-19 and know what to expect, the medical professionals have given us advice on how to attack this.

"I think we've done a great job, and I'm kind of excited now that we've gotten to this point."

Tennessee made national headlines midway through the preseason when Pruitt announced that 44 Vols had missed a Saturday practice, but the players don't look back at that time with concern.

"People were able to grow," Kennedy said. "If someone was out, we were able to have someone else step up, and I think that allowed guys to grow and become more comfortable with playing, learning the plays and the fundamentals."

More than a dozen college games have been canceled or postponed since the start of this already altered season, with the most notable transpiring this week with the Notre Dame-Wake Forest matchup. A Tennessee game could get canceled or postponed in an instant, but players feel much better now compared to how they felt during the spring.

"As we came back and as we transitioned to coming back after quarantine, we took the necessary steps to be able to have a season," To'o To'o said. "It's truly a blessing to be here and to have such a great medical staff, a great coaching staff and to be able to lead us the right way and know our safety protocols."

One Tennessee player who will have to wait a little longer to compete is freshman running back Dee Beckwith, who injured an ankle in practice this week and will not make the trip.

 

Down to the wire

Pruitt was asked on Wednesday's SEC teleconference when would be the latest he could know a decision on the eligibility of junior offensive lineman Cade Mays, who has been cleared by the NCAA but not the league.

"I guess before we get on the plane," Pruitt said. "He's obviously been working and preparing to play this week, and we've got a plan either way, but I would say before we get on the plane."

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

 

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