Tennessee lost four contributors at the cornerback position from the 2017 team. That spot immediately became Jeremy Pruitt’s biggest need the second he took the Vols’ job. After missing on a couple of high-profile defensive backs late, Pruitt was able to pull in four-star athlete Bryce Thompson in the spring, signing him to play cornerback. He then flipped Alontae Taylor from receiver to corner, adding two big time athletes to the mix in the defensive backfield.
Those two guys were the best in camp, according to Pruitt. It was a bold call to trot both guys out as starters against West Virginia’s All-American quarterback Will Grier, but then again — Pruitt didn’t have much of a choice.
The result? Grier threw for 429 yards and five touchdowns. It took the West Virginia offense a half to really get going, but once they did, it turned into an avalanche.
“We played some young guys,” Pruitt said. “And those guys deserved to play. They performed the best in fall camp. You know, they did some good things today, but there’s lots of lessons that they got taught today. That’s part of football — that’s part of growing up.”
Pruitt largely trusted his true freshmen cornerbacks in press-man coverage, leaving them on islands with David Sills, Gary Jennings and company. In the second half, Grier just made some throws.
There were a couple of freshman moments out there. Both Bryce Thompson and safety Trevon Flowers were beaten in man coverage for big plays, but Marquill Osborne and Nigel Warrior also surrendered negative plays.
Frankly, that’s just going to happen when you can’t get pressure on an All-American quarterback. It was an impossible matchup for this defense to win in a week one game, especially when you’re offense only puts up 14 points.
“I knew this would happen,” Pruitt said. “But I also know in October they’re going to be a lot better. So they have to learn from it, they’ve got to grow up and I think they will because they’re made the right way. So I’ve got to do a better job of coaching them too, you know? I put them in a couple of bad spots and that’s my fault. I’ll help them out a little bit more the next time.”
Tennessee will have a couple of warm-up games against ETSU and UTEP before facing their next test in the Florida Gators. The value of that experience can’t be overstated.