Cornerback Bryce Thompson and punter Joe Doyle were freshman All-Americans a year ago, but the Vols remain in competition at their respective positions during fall camp.
Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt stressed that competition remains at nearly every position group on the field 10 practices into fall camp.
Following Tuesday’s workout at Haslam Field, Pruitt said freshman Warren Burrell is pushing Thompson and Alontae Taylor at the cornerback positions with veteran Baylen Buchanan sidelined with an injury.
He also said that punter/kicker Paxton Brooks is neck-and-neck with Doyle for the punter spot.
“There are lots of areas of our football team that not only do we not have starters, we don’t know who the twos are or who the threes are, so there’s lots of competition and it will change daily,” said Pruitt. “When you go to the stadium and scrimmage, it’s an opportunity to see how you perform without the coaches out there with you. We had some guys that performed better than others and maybe they weren’t the same guys as when we had practice, so that’s good to see and we’ll see how they respond this week.”
Pruitt has stressed that he will always play the best player no matter his year as he did last year when Taylor and Thompson started the majority of the games as true freshmen at cornerback.
Taylor started nine games in 2018 and Thompson started 10 in the defensive backfield, with both appearing in all 12 games on the Vols’ schedule. Taylor collected 40 tackles, a tackle for loss, two forced fumbles, two breakups and a blocked kick in his debut season. Thompson wrapped up his freshman campaign with 34 tackles, a sack, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble, 10 pass deflections and three interceptions.
Burrell, a freshman from Suwanee, Georgia, was a four-star rated recruit by Rivals and one of the top 30 prospects from the state of Georgia. The North Gwinnett High School product led his team to a 14-1 record and the Georgia Class 7A State Championship in 2017.
“A lot of people make a lot about Bryce (Thompson) and Alontae (Taylor),” said Pruitt. “Bryce and Alontae played because they were the best players here. Both of them have a long way to go to improve as football players. I believe both have the skill set to play the position. They’re different, but they work hard. They like ball so they have a chance to be good football players down the road. Are they right now? They still have a ways to go. It’s good that Warren (Burrell) is here, because he creates competition.”
Brooks and Doyle in Competition for Punter
Brooks and Doyle appeared in and started all 12 games in 2018 for the Vols. Brooks kicked off 52 times for 3,177 yards with 23 touchbacks. Doyle punted 65 times for 2,673 yards with 12 punts of 50+ yards. His career-long punt came against Georgia when he launched the ball 71 yards.
“This is probably a couple of years worth of battling,” Pruitt said. “I think last year Joe was probably a little more consistent. He’s a year older even though they’re both classified as sophomores, but Joe had a redshirt under him. That’s all Joe does is punt, Paxton does kickoffs and field goals so he has a little more on his plate. I think Paxton has done a good job of trying to tighten down in the punting part and being more consistent.”
99 Plays at Neyland
On Sunday at Neyland Stadium, the Vols held their first scrimmage of the year. The team went through 99 plays that featured team play and situational football.
“We played 99 plays on Sunday in the scrimmage,” said Pruitt. “If you look at both sides of the ball, even in the kicking game, it’s kind of what we talked about with what kind of players we have on our team. We have guys that know what to do, they know how to play, and they know how to execute.”
Pruitt said the Vols have several options to return kicks and punts this season, including senior Marquez Callaway, who returned punts in 2017 and 2018, and junior Ty Chandler, Tennessee’s top kick returner the last two seasons.
“We’ve got lots of guys for punt return,” said Pruitt. “Marquez Callaway has done it for a few years and has done a nice job. We have Bryce (Thompson), Kenny Solomon, Jordan Murphy, Ty Chandler, Eric Gray. We have guys back there that have worked at it. We have the same guys when it comes to kickoff return.”
Callaway has two career punt return touchdowns and is his career return average (13.4) is the highest among any active player in the FBS. The senior recorded a career-best 81-yard return against Charlotte for a score in 2018.
Chandler owns a 22-yard kick-return average and a return for a touchdown heading into his junior year. The Nashville product’s career-long return came as a freshman where he ran the ball back 91 yards for a score in his first-career start against Indiana State. Thompson showed flashes in the return game as a freshman last season, averaging 25 yards a return on four attempts.