Conducting a football practice during a global pandemic is no small feat. Tennessee experienced that during the past week.
Tennessee is 10 practices into the preseason as it marches toward a Sept. 26 season opener at South Carolina. But the Vols had to cancel plans for a scrimmage on Saturday because they had 44 players unavailable for practice.
Here are five things we learned from Tennessee’s third week of practice.
COVID-19, contact tracing affect Vols
Of the 44 players unavailable for Saturday’s practice, coach Jeremy Pruitt said “seven or eight” were active cases of COVID-19. A few players are sidelined because of injury, and more than two dozen were in the midst of 14 days of required quarantine because of a high-risk contact with someone who tested positive.
Quarantine tied to contact tracing can wipe out most or everyone in a position group for several practices, making it hard to prepare not only that unit, but others connected to it.
“It’s definitely been challenging,” Pruitt said.
Velus Jones Jr. will handle returns
Just how fast is Jones, the graduate transfer from Southern California?
“He’s a 4.3 (40-yard dash) waking up in the morning,” wide receivers coach Tee Martin said.
It’s no surprise, then, that Tennessee plans to use Jones on kickoff and punt returns. On punts, he’ll replace Marquez Callaway, a senior last season. Running back Ty Chandler handled kickoff returns last season.
Although Jones didn’t return punts at USC, he returned kickoffs in each of the past three seasons, averaging at least 23 yards per return each year.
Jones also should claim a spot on the wide receiver two-deep depth chart.
“He’s a veteran, so he’s able to plug and play at different positions without panicking because he’s been there before,” Martin said. “I like what he’s doing.”
Two defensive linemen catch Jeremy Pruitt’s eye
Pruitt isn’t satisfied with the defensive line’s performance, a group that returns all of its production from last season.
“We’ve got to play with more toughness up there,” he said. “We’ve got to play with more awareness. We’ve got to be more consistent.”
But veterans LaTrell Bumphus and Matthew Butler are seniors who earned high marks from Pruitt. Both were rotation regulars and part-time starters last season, and Butler’s 45 tackles and 2½ sacks paced all Tennessee defensive linemen.
“We’ve got to get other guys to raise to their level of play at that position,” Pruitt said.
Two freshman running backs to play
Freshman running backs Tee Hodge and Jabari Small will be counted on in support of Tennessee’s talented duo of Eric Gray and Ty Chandler.
The Vols split carries fairly evenly between Chandler, Tim Jordan and Gray last season. Jordan was dismissed from the program in June, and Chandler and Gray can expect an uptick in their percentage of the team’s carries, but it leaves some carries for Hodge and Small.
Len’Neth Whitehead, Tennessee’s third freshman running back, has been limited in practice following offseason foot surgery.
“Hopefully in three to four weeks, he’ll be at a point to where he can start taking full-speed reps,” Pruitt said. “If he’s able to do that, maybe in the last half of the year he’ll get a chance to play a little bit.”
Dee Beckwith works in hybrid role
Beckwith played quarterback and wide receiver in high school, and the Vols aim to tap into the freshman’s versatility. Beckwith is splitting time between wide receiver and tight end, although he’s among the players who have been unavailable in recent practices.
He might find a faster path to playing time at tight end, where the Vols’ have little experience behind returning starter Austin Pope. Tennessee’s wide receiver competition is more crowded, headlined by Josh Palmer, Ramel Keyton and Jalin Hyatt.
Tennessee uses tight ends in the slot, as an H-back and attached to the line. Beckwith will more quickly grasp the former two roles. Lining up attached to the line would require him to learn how to play with a hand in the turf.
“We haven’t decided yet if we’re going to actually progress him that far at that position yet, but he has the skillset,” Martin said. “He has the want-to. He’s a young man that’s always around asking questions, always trying to watch extra film and improve himself.”
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake’s subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.