Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt said true freshman quarterback Brian Maurer will officially make his second consecutive start at Noon on Saturday when Mississippi State travels to Neyland Stadium for the first time since 2008.
“Maurer is a guy that for the second week in a row we have catered the package around him to see what he does well,” Pruitt said. “I think the longer you do something, the better you get at it. To me, what I see is a guy that seems to have a little more command.”
The Vols practiced in shells and shorts on Wednesday at Haslam Field in an effort to keep the team fresh with a Noon kick coming after last weekend’s night game.
“I felt like with a Noon kickoff, we needed to get our legs back under us a little bit,” Pruitt said. “Our guys are continuing to work hard. We have some guys that are a coming back from some injuries that are a little banged up that are out there, which is good to see. It seems like we’ve had really spirited practices and good competition between each other.”
Maurer had an outstanding first half in his first-ever collegiate start against No. 3 Georgia, throwing for 205 yards and two touchdowns before halftime as Tennessee held the lead until the two-minute mark in the second quarter. He finished with 259 yards on 14-of-28 passing with the two first-half scores and an interception. His passing mark was the second-most ever by a UT true freshman in his first start.
Still, Pruitt hopes to establish the run game to ease the load on his rookie passer. Tennessee’s running back got an added boost when junior Tim Jordan had his best game of the season against Georgia as he returned to form following an ankle injury. Jordan finished with a team-high 47 yards against the Bulldogs and he combines with leading rusher Ty Chandler (64 ypg) and versatile freshman Eric Gray to give the Vols a much-improved rushing attack this season.
“One guy that has really stuck out to me in the last week with how he’s played and how he’s competed, really going all the way back to the Auburn game (last season), is Tim Jordan,” Pruitt said. “When he’s gotten his opportunities, he’s continued to work hard, play good on special teams and it’s been good to see him out there getting it going. Tim’s a guy that really likes ball and has been a really good practice player for us.”
Jordan has rushed for 686 yards and three scores over his three-year career, including a standout 118-yard performance against West Virginia to open the 2018 season. Jordan, Chandler, Gray and senior Carlin Fils-aime will look to get the offense rolling on the ground against a Mississippi State defense that ranks No. 11 in the SEC against the rush, allowing 158.0 yards per game.
“They’re always tough to block,” Pruitt said. “They’re big, strong and physical guys and we have to figure out a way to create some explosive plays. We can’t turn the ball over and when we get in the red area we have to score some touchdowns.”
Overall, the Mississippi State defense, coordinated by former Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, ranks 13th in the league in total defense, giving up 401.4 yards per game. Shoop’s Mississippi State defense ranked No. 1 in the country in 2018 (263.1 yards per game), but the Bulldogs lost several top players to the NFL and have had several veterans miss games due to suspension this fall.
Brandon Johnson to Redshirt
Pruitt announced on Wednesday that senior wide receiver Brandon Johnson will redshirt, taking advantage of the NCAA’s new rule that allows players to play in up to four games and still retain that year of eligibility.
He led Tennessee with 37 receptions and 482 receiving yards as sophomore in 2017. For his 37-game career he has 60 catches for 738 yards and one score. He has two catches as a backup receiver and a special teams touchdown following a blocked punt through four games in 2019.
“Brandon was playing probably eight to 12 plays offensively though the first four games,” Pruitt said. “He’s a guy that has really good ability, but we have some senior guys there who were probably a little ahead of him at the time. It is something we have decided to do moving forward.”
Morris, Wright Make Impact
True freshman left tackle Wanya Morris has started four games this season and paired up with fellow rookie Darnell Wright to start in three. The duo is expected to bookend the Vols’ offensive line on Saturday at the left and right tackle spots.
Pruitt said the sky is the limit for the pair of five-star freshman tackles. However, they must put the work in on the practice field and consistently take what they learn to the stadium on Saturdays for 60 minutes.
“There’s times – both of them – when you watch them play, there’s some really good things that they do,” Pruitt said. “But the thing that they both have to focus on is the habits that they create every day. The good Lord blessed them with a lot of ability, but what are they going to do with that ability and take it and go to work every single day.
“How do you work to create the right habits to improve to be at your best all the time? That’s something that they have to decide how good they want to be.”
Morris and Wright are two of five true freshmen who have started in 2019, joining linebacker Henry To’o To’o, cornerback Warren Burrell and Maurer. Overall, 20 true freshmen have played through five games in 2019.
Morris expected to compete for playing time when he arrived. He hopes his class can be a foundation for building Tennessee back to the top.
“We all talked about it before we even came here,” Morris said. “We knew that we had the possibility to play, so we took it amongst ourselves, that role, to come in and make an impact.”