The Tennessee Volunteers have been using their open date to take a very close look at themselves.
The Volunteers (2-3) stumbled into their break having lost three straight games. Being routed by Georgia and Alabama could be expected, especially with the Crimson Tide already having won 13 straight in that rivalry. Being thumped by Kentucky was not.
“When you look at where we are at right now, obviously everybody in our program is disappointed,” coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “But I think the most important thing at this point is to figure out, No. 1 what are we doing pretty good right now? And two, what are we not and how do we fix that?”
Pruitt and his coaches have used this week to make up for practice time lost during August and September due to COVID-19 testing and tracing putting so many Vols in isolation or quarantine that practice was paused with a scrimmage later being turned into a practice.
That kept Tennessee from having a true quarterback competition. Freshman Harrison Bailey was among those missing time in quarantine, while Brian Maurer has been dealing with an injured hamstring. Both have gotten more reps this week.
Pruitt said after the 48-17 loss to Alabama that the gap wasn’t as wide as it used to be between the programs. He made clear Wednesday that didn’t show on the scoreboard, which is what coaches have to keep working on with the players.
He counted 23 missed tackles in the 48-17 loss to Alabama with the Crimson Tide getting 97 yards after contact. The Vols also have struggled on third down with too many busted coverages in the secondary, and communication is an issue.
Pruitt mentioned Keyshawn Lawrence as someone recruited to play cornerback that coaches worked at safety trying to get him on the field until injuries pushed him back to cornerback. Tamarion McDonald didn't practice until about two weeks ago.
Cornerback Alontae Taylor has struggled with an injured hamstring since fall camp. Bryce Thompson missed the Missouri game with a torn pectoral muscle. He's played the last two games but limited in practice. Shawn Shamburger and Jaylen McCollough also have missed playing time.
Tight end Jacob Warren said this open date couldn't have fallen at a much better time for the offense. He sees a group that is close to performing at the level the Vols believe they can. There's been a lot of work on fundamentals this week.
“Everyone’s talked about it,” Warren said. “It’s just a matter of execution, ... details and getting timing right, making the plays when they’re there.”
There's been plenty of talk among the Vols on how to rebound and how they want to finish this season. A year ago, Tennessee started 1-4 and finished 8-5 after winning the Gator Bowl. Then the Vols opened this season winning two straight before this skid hit.
Rebounding that way won't be as easy this season. Tennessee visits Arkansas and still has to host No. 8 Texas A&M and No. 10 Florida. These Vols want to finish this season with a winning record.
Linebacker Quavaris Crouch said he wouldn't lie and say that everything has been good. But the sophomore says the players are talking and they have great leaders working to rally the Vols.
“That’s what we are going to do,” Crouch said. "Just being positive about everything because it’s not the end of the world and we are getting better and better.”
The Vols also are getting Friday and Saturday off before starting preparations for Arkansas. That'll be a test for a program that hasn't had any COVID-19 issues over the past month. Crouch said the message has been sent for people to wear their masks if going home to visit family.
"Just know that you should have your mask on because you’re not only going to affect yourself, but you are going to affect your whole team. We still have games to play so just be smart, be disciplined and do the right thing even when it’s hard.”
Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25