KNOXVILLE (AP) — Tennessee got a major boost on each side of the line of scrimmage just in time for the start of the season.
Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt announced Wednesday that offensive lineman Trey Smith has gained medical clearance to play this year and that defensive lineman Aubrey Solomon has received an NCAA waiver enabling the Michigan transfer to play for his new team immediately.
Both players should be available Saturday when Tennessee hosts Georgia State. Their additions strengthen the offensive and defensive lines, two of Tennessee’s greatest concerns heading into the season.
Smith is arguably the best overall player on Tennessee’s roster, but his career was in jeopardy after blood clots were discovered in his lungs.
“My family and I consulted with several of the best doctors in the country, and a plan has been developed that allows me to compete with my teammates on game day,” Smith said in a statement released by the university. “My family and I are confident in that plan. The coaches and staff here at Tennessee have always had my best interests at heart and I can’t thank them enough. Thanks to all of the fans and my teammates for all of their support.”
Tennessee isn’t specifying any details of the plan that has been formulated to enable Smith to play.
Smith missed spring practice in 2018 after the blood clots were first diagnosed. He was cleared to play shortly before that season and started at left tackle for Tennessee’s first seven games, but he was shut down for the remainder of the season when the clots were discovered again.
He had been practicing this spring and summer with limited contact but was a full participant in a couple of recent sessions.
“That’s a great thing for Trey,” Pruitt said. “This is something that Trey and his family decided to do, along with our doctors here at the university and people across the country have come up with a plan for him to be able to play the game that he loves.”
Although Smith played primarily tackle last season, Pruitt indicated the junior would start out at guard this year. Pruitt wouldn’t say how much Smith might play this week or whether there was any sort of plan to limit how many snaps the junior plays each week.
“We’ve got a plan,” Pruitt said. “We’re really keeping it in-house. I don’t think it’s smart to let our opponents know how many snaps Trey’s going to play or not going to play.”
Earlier in the day, Pruitt announced that the NCAA had granted a waiver enabling Solomon to play immediately rather than sitting out a season under NCAA transfer rules.
“I’m beyond excited to be playing football this season,” Solomon said in a statement released by the university. “I can’t wait to suit up with my brothers.”
Solomon’s availability provides a boost to a defensive line that has no returning starters. The unit lost its most experienced returning player when Emmit Gooden tore his right anterior cruciate ligament this month.
Solomon had been practicing with Tennessee while awaiting word on his eligibility.
“That’s a guy that’s worked really hard since he’s been here,” Pruitt said. “I’m glad to see that he gets rewarded, gets a chance to compete and play.”
Pruitt has described Solomon as someone who has the ability to play all three downs with the versatility to line up inside or outside.
Solomon announced in December he was transferring to Tennessee. The former five-star recruit played five games and made six tackles for Michigan while struggling with injuries last season. He played 13 games and had 18 tackles in 2017.
FRESHMEN MAY PLAY
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt hopes a theory his father has about the perils of playing freshmen doesn’t apply to all situations.
“My dad’s always had a saying, for every freshman you play is a loss that you should have on your record,” said Pruitt, the son of longtime Alabama high school coach Dale Pruitt. “That’s the way he looks at it in high school, and if you look at it along the way, it’s probably about right.”
Pruitt really doesn’t have any other option.
The coach made his comments about freshmen last week while discussing the importance of avoiding unrealistic expectations with younger players. But as much as Pruitt wants to remain patient, Tennessee’s circumstances demand he gives some opportunities to his newcomers.
Although Pruitt declined to estimate how many freshmen will play Saturday in the season opener with Georgia State, Tennessee’s unofficial projected depth chart has five true freshmen listed in bold as possible starters and eight more included in the possible two-deep rotation.
That said, Tennessee’s depth chart leaves plenty of room for interpretation. Ten players are listed as potential starters for five spots on the offensive line. Ten more players are considered potential starters at the three defensive line positions.
While there’s still plenty of uncertainty on how this coaching staff plans to distribute playing time, plenty of freshmen already have made enough of an impression to warrant opportunities.
“We have a lot of guys that came here because they felt like they had the opportunity to play early at a big-time program, and a lot of them have put themselves in position to do that, so we’re excited about Saturday and having an opportunity to get this thing going,” Pruitt said Monday.
These freshmen are part of Pruitt’s first full recruiting cycle since Tennessee hired him in December 2017. That class ranked 13th nationally and included four top-100 prospects according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports.
Tennessee is coming off two straight losing seasons, so returning starters had little cause to feel their jobs were secure and freshmen had reason to feel they could win immediate playing time.
Perhaps no freshman has performed as well as linebacker Henry To’o To’o), a former top-50 recruit. To’o To’o already figured to have a major role in the opener and now may get even more responsibility with usual starting linebacker Daniel Bituli (knee) likely to miss the Georgia State game.
Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright are former five-star prospects challenging for starting spots at offensive tackle. Cornerback Warren Burrell opened some eyes in the preseason and is part of a secondary that’s missing Bryce Thompson due to suspension and Baylen Buchanan due to a spinal condition.
Running back Eric Gray also has shown some playmaking ability during preseason practices and could get some carries behind incumbent starter Ty Chandler.
In the meantime, Tennessee’s upperclassmen have given the freshmen advice on what to expect in their first college game.
“We basically describe to them the difference is the crowd noise while you’re on the field instead of being in the stands,” fifth-year senior outside linebacker Darrell Taylor said. “It’s a big difference. You’re trying to communicate to each other and you can’t even hear each other with the 102,455 in our stadium.”