Tennessee sophomore running back Eric Gray had a 31-yard reception for an offense that had four plays of 30-plus yards during Saturday night's 31-27 win at South Carolina. / Tennessee Athletics photo

Tennessee played turnover-free and completed four passes of 30-plus yards during Saturday night's 31-27 opening victory at South Carolina.

The Volunteers tallied a respectable 394 yards and 21 first downs, but there was one glaring stat reflecting offensive ineptitude.

"I didn't realize how poor we were on third down," Tennessee third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said Monday on a Zoom call. "There were probably three offensive possessions that we had a chance to maybe end the game or put some distance between us and them that we didn't do when we had good field position. We've got to do a better job of closing out."

Tennessee was 1-for-11 on third down, with that 9.1% success rate placing the Vols 71st out of the 72 Bowl Subdivision teams that have played this season.

The Vols returned to Knoxville between 3 and 4 in the morning after Saturday's game, according to Pruitt, with coaches spending most of Sunday "cleaning up" the opener in terms of corrections that needed to be made. He said the rest of Sunday was spent recruiting and that Monday's day off for players would be when the staff delved into studying Missouri.

The Tigers opened the Eli Drinkwitz era Saturday night against Alabama, falling behind 35-3 early in the third quarter before salvaging a final score of 38-19.

"If you look at Missouri and just watching the game they played against Alabama, they won the second half," Pruitt said. "I know the game didn't start off the way they wanted it to, but if you watch how they play, they played extremely hard and were aggressive.

"They created problems in all three phases, so it will be a tremendous challenge for us as we move forward."

Pruitt was asked Monday why senior defensive lineman Darel Middleton and senior defensive back Shawn Shamburger did not make the trip to Columbia. Middleton posted on Twitter that his absence was due to health, adding, "Back next week after a couple checkups."

"We talked last week from the standpoint of COVID and everything that's going on — I just really don't think it's fair for the players to put out exactly why they're not there," Pruitt said. "Hopefully, if everything works out, we can get these guys back very soon."


Run him over

Paxton Brooks didn't exactly make the most of a low snap during the first quarter at South Carolina, but the junior punter eventually had six kicks that averaged 40.5 yards with a long of 51. More importantly, five of his six punts traveled inside the 20-yard line of the Gamecocks.

"When Paxton signed here, he was like 6-5, 157, so he's worked really hard in the weight room," Pruitt said. "I think he's like 195 now. I would like to have seen him on that bad snap run over two or three folks and get us a first down."

Pruitt quickly added, "Y'all didn't think that was funny?"


No more yellow

Pruitt was asked Monday about junior linebacker Jeremy Banks, who amassed five tackles, including one lost-yardage stop, but was penalized twice.

"Getting penalties is part of how you play," Pruitt said. "I've coached a lot of really good players, and Jeremy has a chance to be a really good player, but he's not going to be a really good player unless he plays penalty-free. You can play aggressive and you can play physical, but you can do it in between the whistles.

"I'm sure when the game started, Jeremy didn't say, 'Man, I want to walk out there and get two penalties,' but he did, and that can't happen."


Odds and ends

CBS has used a six-day option for its Oct. 10 telecast and will choose between Georgia-Tennessee and Florida-Texas A&M. Deandre Johnson was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week after collecting a career-high six tackles and 2.5 sacks. Johnson also forced a fumble.

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.