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Front Page - Friday, January 10, 2020

Comeback in bowl game a reflection of Vols’ season

Tennessee running back Eric Gray accepts the MVP trophy. - Photo by Bob Self | AP

By Rhiannon Potkey

Mistakes and missed opportunities caused them to fall behind early. Spectators began losing faith and abandoning hope of a potential turnaround. The quarterback was benched after some bad plays, only to return to lead the team down the stretch.

The Tennessee Volunteers participated in a bowl game last week that was a microcosm of their entire season.

Staging a furious fourth-quarter comeback that included a crucial onside kick recovery, Tennessee rallied to beat Indiana 23-22 in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.

It was a fitting way to end a turbulent second season under head coach Jeremy Pruitt.

After starting 1-4, the Vols (8-5) rebounded to end on a six-game winning streak.

“Earlier in the season (Pruitt) brought us all in after a game and said we’re going to turn it around after this. This is the last time we’re going to turn it around, and we all bought in,” says Tennessee freshman running back Eric Gray, a Memphis native.

“We all bought in and we said we’re going to put on more steam when we face adversity, we’re going to put on more steam and that’s exactly what we did, and it’s a great way to finish.”

Making its first bowl appearance since 2016, Tennessee was in a familiar position of having the odds stacked against them.

The Vols trailed Indiana 22-9 midway through the fourth quarter with red zone woes and turnovers plaguing the offense.

Entering the game, Football Bowl Subdivision teams were 0-471 when trailing by at least 13 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter this season.

Tennessee became the lone team to buck the trend.

The Vols scored twice in a 30-second span in the fourth quarter. After Quavaris Crouch scored on a 1-yard run, Gray recovered an onside kick by Paxton Brooks. Gray, named the bowl game’s most valuable player, scored on a 16-yard run a few plays later to put the Vols ahead for good.

It was the first time the Vols had attempted an onside kick this season, but they were prepared to try it against Indiana (8-5) based on what they’d seen scouting the Hoosiers.

“We’ve probably repped it 500 or 600 times over the last six months,” Pruitt explains. “I had confidence in our players. So just felt like we needed to do it there, and Paxton laid down a great kick.”

The call aligned with Pruitt’s mentality.

“Well, I’m kind of a go-for-it guy. I look at myself a little bit as a longshot. It hadn’t been that long ago I was coaching high school ball, lining off the field, washing the uniforms and things like that, and now I’m the head coach at the University of Tennessee,” Pruitt continues.

“If it looks like it’s there, you might as well take it is the way I look at it. That’s kind of the way we coach, you know, rather get them before they get us.”

The season-ending win streak and bowl victory could serve as a springboard for the future.

“It was great to see some grit from them. I think if they go into next season and have a pretty darn good season, you will look back at those final six-to-eight minutes of the second half in their bowl game,” says former Tennessee defensive back and current Fox NFL analyst Charles Davis. “It showed what they are capable of and could be the start of something big. If nothing else, I think it might be the true showing of a foundation for Coach Pruitt and the program.”

Tennessee developed a resilient nature by working through early adversity.

The Vols became the butt of many jokes following losses to Georgia State and BYU. Rather than making excuses, they blocked out the distractions and grew closer as a team to find their identity.

“The perception from the outside of what was happening after their start was much different from what was happening on the inside,” says ESPN and SEC Network play-by-play announcer Tom Hart.

“Every time I met with Pruitt on the Friday before a game, he insisted what everyone was hearing on the outside was not representative of where they were and it proved correct in the end. It’s one of the most amazing turnarounds I have ever seen.”

Pruitt credits the seniors with helping set the tone for a culture change once he arrived after enduring some historically bad seasons under former coach Butch Jones.

“When you talk about trusting somebody, these guys are easy to trust because they’re dependable. You can count on them. They have character. They represent the university and themselves, their family in the right way,” Pruitt adds. “They’re really, really good football players, and we’re going to miss them.”

“But I’ll never forget them,” Pruitt says. “I’ll never forget them because they hung in there when they didn’t have to. They hung in there when it wasn’t easy to do, which says a whole lot about them.”

The Vols will have to replace at least five starters from this year’s team - wide receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, linebackers Darrell Taylor and Daniel Bituli and safety Nigel Warrior.

Center Brandon Kennedy announced that he has been granted a sixth year of eligibility and will return to the Vols.

Tennessee will have a quarterback competition for the 2020 starting job.

Jarrett Guarantano’s inconsistency continued in the bowl game. The redshirt junior finished 18 of 31 for 221 yards and two interceptions.

Guarantano, Brian Mauer and J.T. Shrout all took snaps this season. Providing every quarterback remains on the roster, they will be joined in the quarterback room by incoming freshmen Harrison Bailey and Jimmy Holiday.

Gray and the other young Vols want to sustain the momentum the Vols created down the stretch. They want to help Tennessee get back to contending for titles and playing in more important bowl games.

What could have been a depressing season morphed into a redeeming end that carried many valuable lessons.

“Being a Tennessee boy and being here at Tennessee, it’s been unbelievable. It’s been an unbelievable journey,” Gray says.

“I fell in love with the place early. It’s something I dreamed about as a kid, playing college football, playing in a bowl game. Being MVP has been amazing. I just want to say all glory to God.”