The University of Tennessee football team continues to be dealt blows after the dismissal of head coach Jeremy Pruitt and multiple staffers. On Monday, it was announced that Pruitt, along with Brian Niedermeyer and Shelton Felton, was fired for cause in response to the investigation into NCAA violations committed by staff members. On Wednesday, things continued to snowball for the team.
As Wednesday evening came, multiple Tennessee players were deciding to leave. The Vols are currently being led by active head coach Kevin Steele, who was hired last week as a defensive assistant. On Monday night, Steele held a team meeting attended by outgoing AD Phillip Fulmer and Chancellor Donde Plowman. The message was clear, Steele was going to take the task head on and hoped players would follow.
Those words seemed to fall to deaf ears for several players as the transfer portal started to fill up with Vols on Wednesday night.
According to multiple sources, a group of players sat down with a representative to discuss their options and how the transfer portal would work for them. On Wednesday, it became clear how things would play out for a few. It’s also worth noting that these players could take their name out of the portal, though that doesn’t seem likely.
Tennessee linebackers Henry To’oto’o and Quavaris Crouch were officially in the portal after submitting their paperwork. Along with the linebackers, running back Eric Gray and offensive lineman Jahmir Johnson officially entered the portal. In a span of just under thirty minutes, the Vols lost a good chunk of their 2020 production.
The biggest loss on Wednesday evening would have to be Henry To’oto’o and Eric Grey. The productivity of To’oto’o cannot be understated; this one will hurt. The sophomore leader was the backbone of the Vols defense, as he recorded 68 tackles, 1 sack, and a pick-six for the Vols. But it’s not just what he did in the statically; it was how he led his group on the field. As the Vols defense would line up, it was Henry who was relaying the defensive calls and lining up his teammates. He was the enforcer that took over for Daniel Bituli, a much-needed leader, on and off the field.
Tennessee will also miss the services of running back Eric Gray, who had 1,026 all-purpose yards and 6 touchdowns during the 2020 season. The Vols will miss his elusiveness and ability to hit the gap, along with productivity in the passing game. Yes, the Vols have a stable of running backs, with the additions of the 2021 signing class, but Grey will be missed. This is a blow for an offensive unit that needed his skill and leadership, as it really felt like Grey was starting to hit his stride. The Vols missed out on having Grey during the final game of the 2020 season, as multiple sources indicated he was ineligible for the game due to the investigation that was ongoing at the time.
The newly hired Kevin Steele will also have to replace linebacker Quavaris Crouch, who played alongside To’oto’o at ILB. During the 2020 season, Crouch would split time with Jeremy Banks at the position, as they both worked to build their knowledge of the position. There were times last season that this group looked under-coached; maybe that had to do with Brian Niedermeyer being moved from TEs to ILB coach last year. It never felt like this group was totally in-sync, as it looked like Henry was spending more time lining up his teammates rather than preparing for the upcoming play.
But, make no mistake about it, this group of players leaving look bad on paper and also will hurt on the field. Tennessee offensive lineman Jahmir Johnson entered the portal on Wednesday as well, though this was expected, according to multiple sources. As the 2020 season went on, the battle between Johnson and Wanya Morris played out, with Johnson getting most of the starts towards the end. If one player the Vols could somewhat afford to lose out of the group, it would probably be Johnson, though he did play ok down the stretch.
As the week carries on, it will be interesting to see if any other players decide to test the transfer portal. Logic would tell us to expect more as the transition from Jeremy Pruitt continues. As folks continue taking in the news, it’s not totally fair to blame these players, as you should put your blame towards the coaches and staffers who “allegedly” put this program in a horrible situation.
The Tennessee program will continue to work towards keeping players and adding more as the winter off-season begins. But again, I wouldn’t put much of this on the players, they’re just looking for the best situation for them, and thanks to some, that situation is no longer Tennessee.