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VOL. 42 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 16, 2018

UT's Phillips doesn’t want to watch any bowl games

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Nashville’s Kyle Phillips is hoping the Vols can win at least one of their two remaining games to become bowl eligible for the first time since they appeared in the 2016 Music City Bowl.

-- Jerry Denham | The Ledger

Sitting on the couch watching bowl games on television might be entertaining for the average fan. But for Kyle Phillips, “it was miserable.” The Tennessee senior defensive end wanted to be preparing to play last year rather than stewing over a historically bad season that ended with no SEC wins and a coaching staff change.

“Definitely very difficult, especially going to a bowl previously and not being able to go to one definitely hurt,” Phillips recalls. “You think it’s fun to be at home, but it’s not. It’s not at all.”

The Vols have put themselves in position to feel much better this year. After a resounding defeat of then-No. 11 Kentucky last weekend, Tennessee (5-5, 2-4 SEC) needs one win in its final two games to become bowl eligible.

The first chance comes Saturday when the Vols host Missouri (6-4, 2-4) at 3:30 p.m. EST at Neyland Stadium. Tennessee ends the regular season against in-state rival Vanderbilt on Nov. 24. Missouri gained bowl eligibility last weekend by rallying to beat Vanderbilt 33-28.

Although the Vols aren’t looking ahead, they realize reaching a bowl game would be a milestone for a program in the midst of a rebuild.

“I think it’s important because the University of Tennessee is supposed to be in bowl games,” first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt says. “That’s the expectations here. That’s my expectation, that’s our players’ expectations.”

The value of participating in a bowl game goes beyond just the travel experience. The extra practices are what coaches appreciate most, especially a new staff trying to instill a culture change.

“The only way you can get better at something is to repeatedly do it over and over, so you get extra practices, you get an extra game,” Pruitt adds.

“So I think if you go about your business the right way and work hard during those practices, you have a chance to improve.”

Tennessee is entering the stretch run of the season with momentum stemming from its 24-7 win against Kentucky that extended Kentucky’s misery at Neyland Stadium.

The Wildcats have lost 17 straight in Knoxville dating back to 1984.

Tennessee played its most complete game of the season, with the offense accumulating big plays and the defense holding an SEC opponent to seven points or less for the first time in a decade.

The Vols rushed for 215 yards, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw two touchdowns and linebacker Darrell Taylor recorded a career-high four sacks.

Following an earlier win over then-No. 21 Auburn, Pruitt became the only head coach in the SEC to have wins over two ranked opponents in his first regular season as a head coach.

Defensive lineman Darrell Taylor had a cereer-high four sacks during Saturday’s upset win against No. 11 Kentucky. The Vols will need to defeat Missouri at home on Saturday or Vanderbilt in Nashville to become bowl eligible.

-- Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“I thought for the first time this year that our guys played with good effort throughout the game,” Pruitt says.

“We didn’t always execute like we would like to, and we definitely didn’t finish the game the way you want to. We had two fumbles in the fourth quarter and had a chance to finish the game and we didn’t.

“Luckily, we got some turnovers on defense. But there are lots of positives, but there’s a lot of things we can learn from and we need to improve on to get better this week.”

Missouri’s arrival means the return of former UT head coach Derek Dooley, who is in his first year as Missouri’s offensive coordinator.

Dooley and Pruitt both come from the Nick Saban coaching tree, having worked at separate times for the Alabama head coach.

“I know that some of the guys I’ve worked with have a whole lot of respect for him, what kind of coach that he’s been when they worked with him on the staff,” Pruitt notes of Dooley, who was fired from UT in 2012 after three years at the helm. “I’m watching what they’re doing offensively and they’re doing a really good job.

“They’re physical in the run game. They protect the quarterback. They create explosive plays. They give you multiple looks. So, it’ll be a tremendous challenge for us.”

Pruitt is still searching for consistency with this year’s team.

The Vols have stretches of sound football followed by head-scratching moments.

Asked if he knows what he’s going to get on game days yet, Pruitt acknowledges: “No, I don’t think so. I think when you practice the right way and you create the right habits, you do that over a long period of time.

“You’ve watched us play over the last 10 games. We’ve been really different in all 10 of those games. Some of them we’ve played the right way for certain periods of time, some of them we haven’t. We’re looking to be able to play the right way for 60 minutes. We’re still searching for a four-quarter game.”

Along with striving to reach six wins, Tennessee will be celebrating Senior Day against Missouri.

The Vols will honor 15 seniors, including 12 scholarship players, before kickoff as they run through the T for a final time.

“Just being able to play at Neyland one last time is a privilege,” says Phillips, a Nashville native. “There are a lot of greats that have played here and all the great things that Tennessee has done as a football program, it’s just amazing to be on the field every Saturday.

“Knowing it’s my last game, just makes it even more special.”

Although Pruitt didn’t get to spend as much time with the senior class, he’s grateful for the leadership they’ve displayed during the transition to a new staff.

“If you look back there are some really good times for this group and sometimes they probably wish they had back. In the last 11 months, these guys have really bought in and they have really tried to do what we’ve asked them to and we are thankful for that,” Pruitt says.

“Hopefully some of these guys behind them can follow their lead and the expectations and standards of how they went about their business.”

One of those expectations and standards at Tennessee is playing in the postseason.

Getting back this year would show the progress the program has made under Pruitt, and give the Vols more time to learn and grow for the future.

“It means a lot, especially the players that were here last year. We know what it feels like to not go to a bowl game,” UT junior defensive back Baylen Buchanan says.

“But you know, we are just going to take it one game at a time and hopefully make that goal.”

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