Vols avoiding turnovers, penalties so far

Associated Press • Sep 11, 2018 at 2:57 PM

KNOXVILLE — At least in the early going, statistics suggest Tennessee is doing a better job of avoiding mistakes under new football coach Jeremy Pruitt.

Nonetheless, Pruitt said there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Tennessee (1-1) hasn’t committed one turnover in its first two games and has the fewest penalty yards of any Southeastern Conference team. The Vols committed just three penalties last week in a 59-3 rout of Football Championship Subdivision program East Tennessee State.

Pruitt believes Tennessee still is making far too many mistakes.

“We minimized our mistakes from the previous week but still are nowhere close to where we need to be,” said Pruitt, whose team hosts UTEP (0-2) on Saturday.

No. 2 Clemson and No. 12 LSU are the only other Football Bowl Subdivision programs that have played two games without losing a turnover this season. Ohio and Toledo also have no turnovers, but those teams have played only one game each.

Tennessee nearly committed one turnover against ETSU, but a Jeremy Banks fumble was overturned after replays showed he was down before the ball came out.

By contrast, UTEP already has lost three fumbles and thrown three interceptions while producing a minus-5 turnover margin. Southern Mississippi is the only FBS team with more turnovers than UTEP.

“It’s been an emphasis since this staff got here,” Tennessee wide receiver Brandon Johnson said. “Every day we talk about protecting the football. It kind of paid off so far at least.”

The Vols’ ability to avoid penalties builds off one of the strengths of former coach Butch Jones’ regime. Tennessee had an SEC-low 42.2 penalty yards per game over Jones’ five-year tenure, including the two final games in 2017 under interim coach Brady Hoke. The Vols are averaging 33.5 penalty yards per game this season, tied for ninth best among all FBS teams.

The Vols weren’t nearly as effective in protecting the football under Jones. Tennessee averaged 20.4 turnovers per year from 2013-17. The only SEC teams with more turnovers during that stretch were Florida, Mississippi, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.

Tennessee’s players are careful not to compare the two staffs when asked whether one has prioritized protecting the football and avoiding penalties more than the other. But they do say Pruitt has made it a major emphasis.

“I just know in Coach Pruitt’s time here, he has emphasized that the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win,” offensive tackle Trey Smith said. “Obviously cut down on mistakes, cut down on penalties, you’ll have success in the program.”

Although Tennessee has done a nice job of avoiding turnovers and penalties so far, Pruitt said the Vols have made plenty of mistakes in other areas. He noted that Tennessee has failed to gain yardage on too many plays from scrimmage.

Tennessee has allowed 19 tackles for loss through its first two games. Utah, Florida State and UCLA are the only Power 5 teams that have given up more tackles for loss.

Pruitt said all facets of the offense must work toward reducing those negative plays, whether it’s better communication from linemen or more precise routes from receivers.

“I think when we do do it the right way, we have good plays,” Pruitt said. “When we don’t, we don’t. We’ve got to continue to improve and get it figured out.”

NOTES: Pruitt said running back Ty Chandler should be available to play against UTEP. Chandler sat out the ETSU game after Pruitt said he got his “bell rung” in a season-opening loss to No. 14 West Virginia. ... Reserve defensive tackle Paul Bain has been placed on scholarship. Bain was the walk-on who gained attention last year by blocking a field-goal attempt to spark Tennessee’s comeback in an overtime victory over Georgia Tech.

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