KNOXVILLE – Eric Gray has caught the eye of Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt for all the right reasons.
Pruitt described the freshman running back from Memphis as a quick learner who has good skills, good vision and competes.
“He jumps out there and is very mature when it comes to football-playing abilities,” Pruitt said.
He offered this assessment last Saturday, when he met with the media following practice. Pruitt’s review pertained to Gray’s work in practice. He punctuated his observations with the following caveat: “we’ll see how he does when we get over to the stadium.”
The reference was to a closed scrimmage on Sunday at Neyland Stadium. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Gray jumped out there as well, at least in one instance, running for a touchdown, according to a report by 247Sports.
Pruitt’s post-scrimmage view on Tuesday was more measured in tone regarding Gray.
“He’s like a lot of the guys, he has flashes,” Pruitt said. “…He’s got to be more consistent.”
In that sense, Gray is like several other freshmen who have made good first impressions but have only begun to flesh out their profiles.
Here’s a look at several others in the context of their position group.
Linebacker: Pruitt has been especially lavish in his appraisal of Henry To’o To’o, describing him even more so than Gray in a manner befitting a veteran player.
“Henry is a guy who things have come real easy for him,” Pruitt said. “He picks things up, instinctive, can cover, fits the runs, is what you’re looking for in a linebacker. He’s pretty advanced for a young guy at that position. He is capable of being a signal caller. He is a guy who can play all three downs.
To’o To’o (6-2, 232) projects as an inside linebacker. Fellow freshmen Quavaris Crouch (6-1, 246) and Roman Harrison (6-2, 234) are working on the outside. Crouch’s ongoing adjustment hasn’t diminished his zeal for being physical.
“He’s another guy whose motor is always running and he’s flying around,” Pruitt said. “Lots of times, he’s not doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing. But he’s a playmaker.
Offensive line: Freshman Wanya Morris (6-4, 313), who was an early enrollee, is staking a competitive claim to the starting spot at left tackle.
Fellow first year lineman Darnell Wright (6-6, 330), who didn’t arrive until preseason practice, is playing from behind in terms of familiarity. Nonetheless, he’s in the mix on the right side of the line.
“When he knows what to do, you can see the ability and he flashes that,” Pruitt said. “We just have to be patient with him, have realistic expectations and give the kid a chance to develop as a player.”
Quarterback: Freshman Brian Maurer is contending with redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout for the backup spot behind Jarrett Guarantano. Like Shrout, Pruitt indicated that Maurer is throwing too many interceptions in practice. Maurer’s ability to run, though, is a distinguishing characteristic.
“(Mauer) can run around really well,” Pruitt said. “Probably when the play breaks down, he can extend and hurt you a little bit with his feet there.”
Summing it up: Pruitt’s take on freshman cornerback Warren Burrell likely could’ve applied to all of the aforementioned freshmen.
“Warren has done a good job,” Pruitt said. “Does he need to get stronger? Absolutely. But has good ball skills. He’s smart, he’s coachable, he plays with toughness.
Is he perfect? No, but he’s a freshman. Nobody is. I’m glad he’s here. We have good competition there, and we need it.”
Notebook: Linebacker Jordan Allen has undergone surgery to repair a sports hernia and is out indefinitely, Pruitt said. … Defensive back Baylen Buchanan is being held out because of “a narrowing of the spine” condition, Pruitt said. Buchanan’s playing status is uncertain for the time being.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org