KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football head coach Jeremy Pruitt is looking for his team to improve every day on every play and every snap over the next three weeks.
The Vols returned to practice at Haslam Field on Monday following Saturday’s 14-3 victory over Charlotte.
Improvement will be key for the offense after the unit accounted for only one touchdown against the 49ers, but also for the defense with No. 12 Kentucky coming to Neyland Stadium for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff this weekend.
“I think the message to our entire team is we want to go out there every day and improve every snap,” Pruitt said. “Take it one snap at a time. Our guys have worked really hard to do that, but again like I’ve said to the team, how you play on Saturdays is how you’re remembered. It’s not how you play on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. But, to play good on Saturdays you need to practice well and prepare well. We had too many mistakes Saturday, which went back to earlier in the year, guys blocking the wrong folks. It’s hard to have success when you do that.”
Tennessee’s defense held its third opponent without a touchdown for the first time since 2008. The Vols have now held three opponents to three points or less for the first time since 2002, as well.
“We limited explosive plays, probably tackled a little better, but we still have a lot of ways that we need to improve,” Pruitt said. “I think our guys will work hard this week to do that.”
Senior defensive end Kyle Phillips has improved as much as any Vol this season. The Nashville, Tenn., native had another big game against Charlotte in a season full of them. He set a career high with two pass breakups and tied his career bests in tackles for loss (2.0) and sacks (1.0), while having four total tackles.
Phillips, who graduated with a degree in sports management in three years, has started all nine games this season and tallied 37 tackles, three sacks and five TFLs – eclipsing his previous season-best totals in each category.
“Kyle has worked really hard,” Pruitt said. “He’s a guy that practices hard every day. He’s got some good toughness to him and instincts. He plays with a good motor, so he’s doing a good job for us.”
Kelly Proves Valuable in Return
Having already earned his degree coupled with a new coaching staff and arduous process of returning from a knee injury, redshirt senior safety Todd Kelly, Jr. could have easily wrapped up his collegiate football career this summer. Instead, the Knoxville native has started the last two games and been a valuable asset to a young defensive back unit.
“It wasn’t a tough decision at all,” Kelly, Jr. said. “When you speak about the program, the University of Tennessee, that’s my pride and joy. My blood runs orange. I grew up here. I’m a Knoxville native, so when I had the decision to come back again, why would I not try to extend my career for this ball team, for this community and for this city? I wanted to play for coach Pruitt. He’s a great coach and a great defensive mind. You have seen all the things he’s done for us. We all believe in him and take pride in what he’s teaching us, and I wanted to have the experience for playing for him for one year. There was no doubt in my mind I wanted to come back.”
Kelly has played in five games this season and made 14 tackles, including seven against Charlotte. His starts against the 49ers and South Carolina gave him 19 career starts and 45 career games. With at least three games remaining in his career, Kelly has 172 career stops to go along with eight interceptions.
“Just coming from knee surgery and now being back playing with my teammates in Neyland Stadium, nothing gets better than that,” Kellly, Jr. said. “For me, being here for a fifth year – I’m a redshirt senior – I pictured if I would be out there or not, and now I am back out there with my teammates playing in front of all of those fans. That is definitely a blessing. It shows how well the rehab process went and with the new training staff. Everything went according to God’s plan. I’m thankful to be out there and get even one snap with my teammates.”
Kelly has been around the Tennessee football program his whole life as his father, Todd Kelly, Sr., was an All-SEC defensive end for the Vols and a first round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1993 NFL Draft.
Salute to Service Weekend
Tennessee will welcome several military initiatives on Saturday during “Salute to Service Weekend.” Among the several initiatives includes a halftime performance from the Marine Drill Team, veteran Jim Cundall being honored as Volunteer of the Game and a recognition of Gold Star families pregame.
Tennessee also had a POW/MIA Chair of Honor installed this season. It is a single black chair which will remain unoccupied in honor of service member declared as prisoners of war or those missing in action. The Chair of Honor symbolizes that there will be a place saved in Neyland Stadium awaiting their return. The POW/MIA Chair of Honor was unveiled earlier this season for the Florida game on the heels of National POW/MIA Recognition Day. The Chair of Honor is located in the north upper endzone, to provide an expansive view of the gameday and pageantry in Neyland Stadium.
For more information on Salute to Service Weekend visit UTSports.com.
Pruitt said freshman safety Trevon Flowers will likely be a game time decision on Saturday, while senior safety Micah Abernathy will start back practicing this week and his availability will be determined. Flowers (collarbone) and Abernathy (ankle) have both missed the last four games.