Mike Wilson, a Tennessee beat writer for the Knoxville News Sentinel, took time this week to answer a few of our questions about the Volunteers as they prepare for Saturday’s game with South Carolina.
Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. from Williams-Brice Stadium. SEC Network will televise.
1. Taking over a program coming off a winless SEC season, Jeremy Pruitt didn’t have a huge bar to hit in Year 1. But two weeks removed from the Auburn win, where are Tennessee fans with Pruitt’s progress?
I think the Auburn win is everything for how Pruitt is currently perceived. The Vols weren’t going to beat Alabama and, I believe, most fans knew that going in. But beating Auburn was a level of achievement and positivity for the UT program that hasn’t been seen in a while now.
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Overall, I think the perception of Pruitt is largely positive for UT fans. Butch Jones is blamed heavily for the current state of the roster and Pruitt certainly has a degree of understanding because of that. The bigger thing to watch is how fans approach him in Year 2, which has a favorable schedule and another year of roster turnover. The level of understanding and acceptance is likely going to go down quickly after this season.
2. Jarrett Guarantano has thrown for more than 200 yards just once this season. He had success against Auburn (see 328 yards), but then struggled before getting hurt against Alabama. How much is the lack of production is on him? How much is just a product of a poor offense?
Guarantano has improved a lot since last season despite the fact that his numbers aren’t overwhelming. He’s more in command of the offense. He’s more accurate and has a stronger arm.
The lack of production is more an offensive issue. The Vols offensive line has been awful, allowing a huge number of sacks and tackles for loss. The run game has been stagnant for more than a month. So a lot is left on Guarantano, who does have a solid stable of wide receivers at his disposal. He’s done pretty well, in large part, and has taken good care of the football. But he and the UT offense have a long way to go.
3. Bryce Thompson, a Dutch Fork product and former South Carolina commitment, has been a bright spot for the Volunteers this season with a couple interceptions. What’s been a key to his early success?
Thompson was an interesting one in preseason practices. Alontae Taylor, another freshman cornerback, drew a lot more of the praise early on. But Thompson was listed as a co-starter Week 1 and has been a steady contributor.
Thompson is a fast, athletic kid in the secondary and that was what jumped out early. But I think the biggest key was the situation he came into. Tennessee graduated all of its top cornerbacks last season and had little experience and depth at the position. He and Taylor have been in the starting lineup consequently.
4. What are Tennessee’s strengths?
Honestly, punter Joe Doyle has been a reliable performer. He gets called upon a lot and stepped in well this season.
Lately, the play of defensive ends Alexis Johnson and Kyle Phillips has been big. The lack of pass rush was a concern for Jeremy Pruitt early on, but that group has really picked up its play recently. The Vols don’t have many veterans contributing on the roster, but most of them are on the defensive line.
5. What are Tennessee’s weaknesses?
The offensive line is a poor unit at this point. Trey Smith is the most talented player in the group, but he’s playing out of position at left tackle. As I mentioned before, the run game has been really bad recently – the Vols haven’t averaged more than 3 yards per carry since Sept. 15 against UTEP.
The overall offense has struggled as a result.
Tackling also has been an issue, which led to the Vols spending a lot of time on fundamentals during their bye week before facing Auburn.