The Tennessee football team conducted four practices this week as it began the preseason session in advance of the SEC season’s scheduled kickoff on Sept. 26.
Here are five things we learned from the Vols’ first week of practice:
Partial attendance at Neyland Stadium is better than no fans
Athletics director Phillip Fulmer on Tuesday announced plans to limit attendance at Neyland Stadium to about 25% of its capacity, listed at 102,455, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That one-quarter attendance would equal 25,614 fans.
“That’s definitely going to be different, but I think 25,000 is going to be better than zero, for sure,” running back Eric Gray said. “If you’re in that stadium and no one is there, you’re going to be better when 25,000 people are screaming, because, if you think about it, 25,000 is still a lot of people.”
Tennessee’s plans are in line with its SEC peers.
No SEC school has said it plans to play in an empty stadium. Most plan to limit capacity to about 25% for games.
Gray sees a silver lining.
“That’s definitely going to be better for us going on the road,” Gray said. “When you’re listening for plays and JG (Jarrett Guarantano) is back there trying to call plays, you can actually hear now.”
Jarrett Guarantano is the man to beat
Did you catch that part of Gray’s quote where he specifically mentioned Guarantano calling plays? No point in acting like the fifth-year senior isn’t the favorite to be Tennessee’s starting quarterback.
Yes, he will face competition from Brian Maurer, Harrison Bailey and J.T. Shrout, but 25-game starter Guarantano is the frontrunner for the job.
“Me and Jarrett have a great relationship,” center Brandon Kennedy said. “We worked hard this offseason, and we watched a lot of film together in the spring about just different opponents and things we could’ve improved on last year.”
Jeremy Banks is back
In perhaps the most important development of the week, inside linebacker Jeremy Banks was reinstated to the roster.
Banks becomes an enticing option to replace departed Daniel Bituli alongisde returner Henry To’o To’o. He’ll compete with Quavaris Crouch, among others.
Banks flashed potential as a backup last season before he was dismissed from the program for off-the-field incidents.
“He’s grown, and we’re here to support him,” To’o To’o said. “Everything that he does, we’re here to support him. We’re here to help him grow. Jeremy Banks has done a great job. He’s a changed man. He’s helping us tremendously on the field. So, it’s a true blessing to have him out there with us.”
Punter Joe Doyle also rejoined the roster as a walk-on after eyeing a transfer in the offseason. He’ll compete with Paxton Brooks for the starting job.
In an effort to get on the field more quickly, freshman Jimmy Holiday has shifted from quarterback to wide receiver. The move takes advantage of Holiday’s athleticism and speed. He’s also an option to take snaps in the wildcat formation.
Freshman RJ Perry signed as a defensive lineman but is listed as an offensive lineman.
Tee Hodge contends for playing time
Three-star running back Tee Hodge didn’t receive much fanfare when he signed as part of the 2020 recruiting class. But the Maryville product is making a strong early impression, as the Vols seek a third-string running back to join a rotation headlined by Gray and Ty Chandler.
“He has come in and been unbelievably professional,” Gray said. “He takes the game very seriously. He watches a lot of film, he studies me and Ty, he studies in the meeting rooms, and he really wants to do well. I think he’s really going to do well. He’s done a lot in a short span of being here in the summer.”
Henry To’o To’o is chiseled
There wasn’t much to critique about To’o To’o’s freshman season, but if you wanted to pick a nit, here’s one: His body still resembled a guy transitioning from high school to college.
To’o To’o’s frame is more chiseled, as he prepares for a role as the leader of the defense. Officially on the roster, To’o To’o is listed at 225 pounds, down from his listing of 232 last season. To’o To’o admitted he was at 240 pounds after players were sent home when the campus shifted to online-only classes last spring.
“I came back weighing 228, 225,” To’o To’o said. “That’s kind of where I want to be. I wanted more lean mass, more muscle.”
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.