Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt said his squad has a lot to prove heading into Saturday’s homecoming contest with UAB inside Neyland Stadium at 7 p.m.
The Vols (3-5) welcome the Blazers (6-1) following their most complete performance of the season as they routed South Carolina 41-21 behind a season-high 351 passing yards from a pair of quarterbacks, two special teams touchdowns and a second-half shutout.
Still, Pruitt said Tennessee isn’t complacent after the big victory and the Vols still have a lot they can improve on.
“We all have something to prove,” Pruitt said. “We aren’t happy with where we are at right now. Everyone in our program has something to prove.
“We need to do a better job as coaches to get our guys to play their best because that is what we are looking for. We will have an opportunity to do that Saturday night. We have worked hard this week to improve. There are so many places where we have to get better at. We have guys in our program that need to step up, some that need to play harder for longer and some that need to execute at a higher level. Starting with myself and our coaches, we all need to improve and be at our best on Saturday.”
Pruitt said a main key moving forward will be forcing turnovers and taking care of the football. The Vols did not turn the ball over against South Carolina last weekend, but on the season, Tennessee is -1 in turnover differential.
“Each week, when we look at turnovers, we look at the NFL (and) we look at the SEC, probably 80 to 85 percent of the folks that win the game, they won the turnover margin,” Pruitt said. “It’s something that plagued us early in the year, (we) had lots of turnovers. We’ve been harping on it, so we’ve got to continue to take care of the football. I think that’s one thing that helped us in this last game.”
Pruitt said that he expects all three quarterbacks will be ready for Saturday. Freshman Brian Maurer was back at practice this week after missing the last game due to injury and he split most of the reps with redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout on Wednesday.
“They’re all ready to go,” Pruitt said. “How we play them, we have not decided yet. We’ve still got a couple more practices here to see and make a decision as we get closer to the game.”
Shrout saw the first meaningful action of his career against the Gamecocks, finishing 7-of-11 for 122 yards and a 55-yard touchdown to Marquez Callaway.
Redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano came off the bench to toss for 229 yards and two scores on 11-of-19 attempts on Saturday, but he broke a bone in his non-throwing hand while tossing a 19-yard touchdown to Jauan Jennings. He had surgery on Sunday and was back at practice on Monday. Pruitt said Guarantano, who has started 22 games in his career, was limited at practice this week, but he expects he will be ready for the Blazers.
It was Jennings who actually started the South Carolina game at quarterback in the “Wildcat” formation and rushed for 11 yards. He tossed a long completion to Callaway later in the first series, but it was nullified by a penalty.
Pruitt said Jennings, a high school quarterback, could actually run Tennessee’s offense in addition to the Vols’ three scholarship quarterbacks.
Despite Maurer, who started the previous three games, missing the game, the Vols totaled their season-high in total offense (485 yards) with Shrout and Guarantano splitting time under center and Jennings taking several snaps. While Jennings was the star with 192 total yards, the entire offense was clicking with redshirt senior center Brandon Kennedy and junior left guard Trey Smith leading the offensive line, Callaway contributing 102 receiving yards and Ty Chandler gaining 78 yards on the ground for coordinator Jim Chaney’s offense.
“I feel like Jim’s done a good job all year,” Pruitt said. “Saturday, we maybe executed it at a higher level. We made some throws down the field. When you get plays in chunks, it makes it a little easier to score…I think it helped us Saturday that we created some explosive plays. I think Jim’s done a nice job all year. We’ve got to execute at a little higher level and be a little more consistent everywhere. Our kids are working hard to do that.”