KNOXVILLE – Jeremy Banks and Quavaris Crouch have become linebackers of habit. Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt couldn’t help but notice their routine because they’ve been so diligent in following it.
“There’s probably not a day that hadn’t went by over the last three months that I don’t see them sitting in a room together with Henry (To’o To’o) and the other linebackers and them just in there coaching each other up,” Pruitt said.
“When you put as much time and effort into it as they have, they’re going to continue to get better.”
The maturation process of UT’s young linebackers reflects the state of the program. Sixteen players have debuted during the first two games of the season and 13 of them are true freshmen. Yet the Vols have managed to add two victories to a win streak that’s reached eight in spanning two seasons. The offense has committed zero turnovers, the only conference team to be spotless in that regard.
Tennessee’s ongoing makeover will face its sternest test against No. 3 Georgia (2-0) on Saturday in Athens, Ga., (TV: CBS, 3:30 p.m.). The Vols’ time and effort are going toward rebuilding their program in the Bulldogs’ image. Pruitt assessed Georgia’s speed, size, athleticism and skill and concluded “they don’t have a weakness.”
In measuring its progress against such a program, the Vols’ challenge will be establishing enough strengths to give themselves a chance. Their best chance begins with their size and skill on the offensive line.
The Vols got bigger last week when 6-foot-6, 320-pound Cade Mays was cleared to play by the SEC after transferring from Georgia during the offseason. Against Missouri, he manned multiple positions on UT’s line.
Mays’ younger brother, Cooper, and fellow lineman Riley Locklear have been deployed in the first two games in a jumbo package of linemen. The intent is to make the Vols even more imposing and boost their running game.
Through two games, Tennessee is averaging 182.5 yards rushing per game. Ty Chandler leads the SEC in total rushing yards (176).
UT will be running into a Georgia defense, though, that leads the conference and ranks third nationally in allowing just 58 yards per game.
UT center Brandon Kennedy said the O-line has focused this week on the last two seconds of each play and trying to put a little more “strain” into each block in order to gain more yards with each running play.
“Our biggest thing moving forward is we’ve got to continue to be physical and execute at a high level,” he said.
The linebackers can relate. To’o To’o said that they are bracing for Georgia’s running game, which is averaging 161.5 yards.
“They’re trying to run that rock down your throat,” he said.
Over in their room, the linebackers are coaching up each other’s fortitude in much the same fashion as the linemen.
“We have to do our part,” To’o To’o said. “We have to come out mentally sound, physically sound and give it our all.”
-Pruitt said Wednesday that defensive back Shawn Shamburger, who missed the first two games, will play Saturday.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.