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Jeremy Pruitt explains Tennessee’s secondary shuffle against South Carolina

It wasn’t pretty, but it worked out.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Information can be scarce with college football injury reports. Unlike the NFL, teams aren’t required to give official status reports of which players are able to practice. Now with contact tracing and quarantining, we’re naturally going to get some surprises on gameday.

That’s exactly what happened with defensive linemen Darel Middleton and Savion Williams, along with starting nickel Shawn Shamburger. Starting safety Jaylen McCollough was also limited on Saturday.

Jeremy Pruitt has talked at length about cross-training of sorts throughout camp, and that was put to the test immediately. Freshman Doneiko Slaughter started at the STAR spot for Shamburger, while Tennessee’s top cornerback Bryce Thompson started at safety.

“Jaylen McCollough really didn’t get to practice,” Pruitt said on Monday. “He got cleared and kind of going through the getting him back, to make sure that everything was ok with him. We really wanted to go into the game with a plan. If we played him, to be really in the second half. Kind of the same with Warren Burrell. They both had been in quarantine for quite some time.”

This is where Tennessee’s secondary experience and time within the system comes into play. Alontae Taylor and Kenneth George have been there and done that before, while Thompson at least had baseline knowledge of the safety spot. Theo Jackson and Trevon Flowers both are entering year three in the system.

Two years ago, the Vols had virtually zero experience in Pruitt’s defense. Now, at a time where you’ve got so much uncertainty and limited practice time for some, that experience is vital, and a massive advantage for Tennessee.

“To move guys around, Bryce is a guy that has been in the system for a couple years,” Pruitt said. “So from a conceptual standpoint, we just felt like that was the best thing to do. Theo Jackson is a guy that can really play all the spots. And we went into the games really trying to train him at Star, which is really not what he plays. He’s more of a safety. But just so we had depth in the game, and to have answers if somebody got hurt. That’s the way we decided to go.”

This was just the first example of roster shuffling we’ll see this year. Tennessee ended up starting Elijah Simmons on the defensive line, while moving several pieces of the offensive line around without Cade Mays being cleared by the SEC.

Hopefully by the middle of the season, Tennessee and the rest of the college football world will find a groove.