Gator Bowl postgame quotes: Jeremy Pruitt and Eric Gray

Jeremy Pruitt and Eric Gray Press Conference

JEREMY PRUITT: First off, what a fantastic ballgame. The players on both teams, the way they competed in the game, I can’t say enough about Indiana, Coach Allen and his staff and what a great job that they did. You know, and then you look at our guys, it took 60 minutes, but our guys continued to scratch and claw and just kept trying to find a way. You know, we kind of changed some things during the game a little bit on both sides of the ball, just trying to find something that was working.

Offensively we got a drive going there in the fourth quarter. We scored there. We get the onside kick and punch it in in three plays and kind of held on the entire — the rest of the way there.

But if you look at the way the game went, we probably messed it up about as bad as you can for the middle eight of the game. We get the ball with three minutes and 36 seconds to go in the second quarter, got a 3rd down there, we turned the ball over. Results in three points. Indiana gets the ball to start the second half, they convert several 3rd downs there. We have them in a 2nd-and-20, they make a good call, we don’t play the screen play correctly, and it turns into a 2nd-and-1, and they just kept — whether it was running the football or getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands, lots of empty, lots of adjustments in the game. But they score there. Ty pops a return there. You think we’re fixing to get a little momentum, and then we throw a pick six. So there’s 17 points that didn’t go to the good guys in that stretch there.

But our kids kind of kept on fighting. Our coaches done a really nice job, and our fan base — all the orange was there when the clock struck zero that was there when the game started, and we can’t say enough about our fan support and what they mean to everybody associated with this organization.

Q. Jeremy, does this game kind of epitomize this team? And Eric, a year ago at this point you’re getting ready to play in the game down in San Antonio and in this game you’ve had such a huge impact. Talk about that growth.

JEREMY PRUITT: Well, I think you’re right. You really don’t find out a whole lot about yourself or a team until you face adversity. And we’ve faced a lot this year. A lot of it was self-inflicting, but still, it is what it is.

You know, I really think the assistant coaches on our staff, because of the men that they are and the character that they have, I really think the team kind of took on their personalities, stayed the course, looked in the mirror and said, how can I improve, how can I be my best. Wasn’t looking for excuses. We owned who we were and worked hard to improve, and I think that says a whole lot about our assistant coaches, everybody associated in our program, and the players on our team. You know, no quitters on that team.

ERIC GRAY: Yeah, I agree with Coach Pruitt, what he said. Earlier in the season he 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. 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.

Q. Jeremy, why did you decide to do the onside kick in that situation? And then Eric, can you take us through that play from your perspective?

JEREMY PRUITT: Well, I think there’s four minutes and 34 seconds to go. We got three time-outs. It was something that we felt was there when we were breaking them down, and as the game went, we felt like it was there. We’ve probably repped it 500 or 600 times over the last six months. Had confidence in our players. So just felt like we needed to do it there, and Paxton laid down a great kick. Eric — we got three guys that’s going to block the three returners, and we got two guys getting the ball. Eric timed it right, and it was a great kick. Wasn’t much they could do based off how they were aligned.

ERIC GRAY: Yeah, that’s a big testament to Paxton, like he said. We’ve practiced it over and over a thousand times. We just never ran it. We saw that look on film all week. We saw that look when they backed their guys up and the hole was there. I was just I caught it when it was 10 yards.

Q. You talked about this game kind of reflecting what the season has been like for your team. What about for Jarrett on a personal level? You yank him in the third quarter and he comes back to lead two touchdown drives in the final seven minutes. What does that say about him to kind of reverse that mojo?

JEREMY PRUITT: Well, I played for a high school basketball coach. If you shot a shot and you missed it and you wasn’t the first one back on defense, he took you out of the game. I learned at an early age if I was going to shoot it I’d better at least get back fast on defense, right. The way I look at quarterbacks, Jarrett didn’t play good. You know, I have lots of confidence in him, but he didn’t play good, and if you don’t play good, we’ve got other good players behind him. We put Brian in. Brian didn’t play good. Probably threw three plays that should have been intercepted and they kicked a field goal, you know. It’s part of it. Nobody is entitled to anything around here. We have to earn it, earn every bit of it. Jarrett knows it, Brian knows it, everybody that’s associated with our program knows it.

It’s a performance-based industry, and we’ve got to perform. Jarrett performed pretty good when he came back in there, you know, and we needed him to.

Q. Eric, on that play, have you fielded onside kicks before? How much onside kick experience do you have?

ERIC GRAY: Well, in practice I feel like I’ve had like 500 reps of the onside kick because we’ve repped it so much. But I’m just glad that I caught it when it was 10 yards.

Q. Following up on JG, when you decided to put him back into the game, did you have a conversation with him about wiping the clean slate? Take us through that decision and then maybe some of the conversations you had with Jarrett before inserting him back into the game.

JEREMY PRUITT: Let me tell you, Jarrett, he’s got thick skin, okay. He’s been through the wars. He knows the expectations that we have, that he has for himself. So sometimes as a quarterback it helps to go over there and watch it from the sideline for a couple of series, you know. Maybe you see a little something that you didn’t see before, you kind of gather yourself, get your composure, figure out what I need to do to play better, and that’s what we did. It’s really no secret.

When the game was on the line, that’s who we wanted in the game. You know what? He came through. He came through, like he has the last six games.

Q. Can you talk about just this senior group that you’ll look back on in a couple years from now, talk about their play and especially over the last six to seven weeks, it just seems like y’all hit a switch. Can you talk about that, especially with this group?

JEREMY PRUITT: You know, I think everybody that’s been coming to the games, they see what kind of football players these guys are. These guys all had phenomenal years. You know, what I like to say is what I think about them as people. 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. They’re really, really good football players, and we’re going to miss them, you know, and these guys are going to have an opportunity to play some more football, and I hope they get to play for a long time.

But I’ll never forget them. 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.

Q. Earlier you discussed how your assistants grew throughout the season. How would you say that you grew as a coach during the season that started inauspiciously and finished with a win in January?

JEREMY PRUITT: Well, one thing, you realize you don’t have all the answers. Fortunate enough — I’ve been fortunate enough to hire really good staff and using these guys. There’s lots of good coaches on our staff. Probably delegating, letting these guys, starting with defensively, letting Coach Ansley and Coach Rumph, Coach Sherrer, Coach Rock kind of doing their thing on defense and kind of just helping them along the way, not butting in, letting Jim and Tee and those guys do it on offense. You know, offensively I’ve got a lot of really good plays to run after the play is over with. You know, so it’s probably not a whole lot of fun to be on that headset, especially the first three quarters tonight.

Q. You’ve got a freshman MVP here and obviously a bowl game win. How much can a win like this, especially the way it ended, how much momentum does that take you into the off-season and into next season?

JEREMY PRUITT: You know, it’s something for these guys that are coming back, the example that the seniors that are leaving here, that they’ve set. Most of those guys have graduated, and if they haven’t graduated they’re going to graduate soon. So first off, doing the right things academically, which is something that’s important to everybody in our program.

You know, but we’re excited about the future of our program because of guys like Eric Gray. You don’t have to spend a whole lot of time with Eric Gray to figure out that he’s made the right way. He’s got the right stuff inside of him. You see it out there on the field. Just hang around him a little bit off the field; you’ll appreciate him that much more.

Q. On that onside kick, were you tempted at times earlier this year to try that same kick? You said you’ve been working on it for a while. Were there other games where it popped into your head? And Jaylen McCollough, I know you haven’t seen film yet, but it looked like he was all over the place today making plays.

JEREMY PRUITT: Well, I’m kind of a go-for-it guy. I look at myself a little bit as a long shot. 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. 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.

You said he was all over the field? See, that’s the thing about coaching. Right before I walked in here, I said, Jaylen, I don’t remember much except them catching that ball on you right there at the end. No, Jaylen is a guy, much like Eric, high character, winner, competitor, tough, smart. You know, these guys have a lot of the same qualities as these seniors that just walked out the door, and that’s the type of guys we’re looking for in this program.

Q. When you look back — you talked about looking back at the senior class, but this freshman class, did you anticipate them being as ready as they were and kind of the progression Eric, Henry, obviously Roman made a play tonight, got to the quarterback, several guys out there making plays that were freshmen?

JEREMY PRUITT: You know, when we recruit, there’s certain criteria that we look for for critical factors for every position. But probably the most important thing is the makeup. Who are they? What kind of student are they? Are they a leader? Do they got character? Are they dependable? And that’s something that we have questions about when it comes to recruiting everybody, and we feel like we’ve recruited some really good student-athletes in this past class.

Q. We saw you after the game lean over to Jauan and he was grasping that trophy and you asked him for a picture. Looked like he didn’t want to give the trophy to anybody else. What has your relationship been like with him throughout his career and your career at Tennessee, and I wanted to ask Eric, being from Tennessee, choosing to stay at Tennessee, now MVP of a bowl game in your freshman year, how do you sum up how this season has been for you?

JEREMY PRUITT: Can I talk about Jauan first? So the first time I ever met Jauan Jennings he comes in my office and we’re going to decide and create a plan to see if he’s going to be able to get back on the team. I think everybody knows this, pretty well documented. But anyhow, so we lay out a plan, and it’s a pretty tough deal. There’s lots of things — and Jauan done absolutely every bit of it to do it. But by the time he left my office, he was trying to negotiate what position he was going to play, and I said, dude, you’re not even on the team yet, all right, so let’s just see if we can make it to this first thing before we start talking that way. But that’s the way Jauan is. You know, he’s always in there trying to represent.

ERIC GRAY: For me, like you said, being a Tennessee boy and being here at Tennessee, it’s been unbelievable. It’s been an unbelievable journey. I fell in love with the place early. You can’t — it’s something I dreamed about. 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.

Additional Player Quotes

Sophomore kicker Paxton Brooks

On the onside kick call:

“When they called it, we have it in the plan all week and we go through it in practice and execute it throughout the week. I felt confident in our ability to execute it in the game and the opportunity came. The coaches saw what they wanted to see in the formation that they lined up in, they called it and thankfully we got a lucky roll. The guys on the outside, credit to them; Eric and Nigel and all of the guys for getting their blocks and Eric for going and getting it. Credit to them.”

On what he felt when Eric got the ball:

“The feeling is relief. We had four last year that we were very close to getting. All of those were tough. This year, we work it every week in practice and for it to pay off really felt great. I knew it, I had full faith in Eric and those guys. I knew he was going to recover it. As soon as I hit it, I knew he was going to be there.”

Henry To’o To’o, Fr. LB

On what kept the team confident:

“We didn’t have the start that we wanted, but we worked. Coach Pruitt emphasizes us working hard and every day we come to practice and come to film, we’re going to work. All that excitement just came from all that hard work we put in during the season.”

On what how the defense felt when Tennessee came within one possession:

“We were locked in (on the sideline). We were tuned in. We knew we had a chance and we knew we just needed one stop. We needed a stop to get our offense back on the field to score and that’s what we got.”

On why the team remained confident when it was trailing:

“We’ve been through worse. We’ve been down, we’ve been down and out. We’ve been in a time where everybody counted us out and nobody believed in Tennessee football and that motivates us. That makes our defense want to come back and come harder.”

Daniel Bituli, Sr. LB

On the future of Tennessee football:

“The team is in really good hands. There are a bunch of hungry guys and guys that want to go out there and compete, guys that are here to win games. I’m excited to see how much they grow these next couple of years.”

On if he is comfortable leaving things in the hands of freshman Henry To’o To’o:

“I’m comfortable doing it (leaving the team in Henry To’o To’o’s hands). Not only him, but we have a bunch of young guys that are playing for us right now. We have a bunvh of guys that we recruited that are going to come in and step up just like he did this year. So I’m really excited about the future of this team.”

Trey Smith, Jr. OL

On what led to the Vols’ comeback win:

“Showing the fight and resiliency, being down a touchdown and a half, being two possessions down with five minutes left in the fourth, that’s insane. Some teams would quit, but we never yielded, we just kept going. We kept sticking to the plan.”