Henry To'o To'o, Eric Gray among 4 Vols starters in transfer portal after Jeremy Pruitt fired
Tennessee fired Pruitt for cause Monday, citing an investigation that revealed sweeping recruiting violations within the football program. Chancellor Donde Plowman called the investigation's findings "stunning" based on the amount of violations and number of people involved. Inside linebackers coach Brian Niedermeyer, who recruited Crouch, Johnson and To'o To'o, and outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton also were fired for cause.
Barely 48 hours later, the four players — all of whom started for UT in 2020 — entered the portal in a 27-minute span.
Tennessee has had 14 scholarship players enter the portal since Dec. 1. Eleven of the players started for Tennessee in 2020 and 13 had started during their Vols career.
Crouch, Gray and To'o To'o joined offensive tackle Wanya Morris as Tennessee's biggest losses to the portal. All four were ranked among Tennessee's top seven signees in the 2019 class, which ranked No. 13 in the nation in the 247Sports Composite.
Morris, one of two five-star recruits to sign with UT under Pruitt, committed to Oklahoma on Monday. Morris was the No. 28 prospect in the 247Sports Composite. To'o To'o was No. 44, Crouch No. 61 and Gray No. 184.
Johnson signed with Tennessee in the 2018 class as a top junior-college offensive lineman out of Arizona Western. He started 11 games at left guard in 2018, and started 17 of 24 games he played in during three seasons at UT. Johnson and Morris split Tennessee's left tackle duties in 2020.
To'o To'o led Tennessee with 76 tackles and 10 tackles for loss last season. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound linebacker from California was a Freshman All-American in 2019. To'o To'o's 72 tackles in 2019 ranked second among SEC freshman and fourth among FBS freshman.
He started 22 of 23 games played at Tennessee. He missed one start due a second-half targeting penalty in 2019.
Gray posted 1,026 total yards in nine games in 2020 — 772 rushing yards and 254 receiving yards. The Memphis product was unavailable to play against in UT's season-ending loss to Texas A&M. Pruitt declined to elaborate on Gray's absence, including when asked specifically if it was due to a compliance issue.
Gray, who set a UT freshman record with 246 rushing yards against Vanderbilt, led UT in rushing touchdowns in both his seasons.
Crouch started all 10 games at inside linebacker alongside To'o To'o last season. He finished third on the team with 57 tackles. Crouch, a decorated high school running back, played outside linebacker as a freshman and was used as a running back in short-yardage situations.
Kevin Steele is Tennessee's acting head coach as Plowman and UT president Randy Boyd intend to hire an athletics director to replace Phillip Fulmer, who is stepping down as AD when his successor is hired. His successor will hire the next Vols football coach.
Steele — or whomever Tennessee hires — could attempt to re-recruit any of the players who entered the portal. Entering the portal does not mean a player is definitely transferring, but it is a first step that allows other coaches to contact the player. The transfer portal went into effect in fall 2018.
Five of the 14 scholarship Tennessee players to enter the portal since Dec. 1 have transferred to a Power 5 school: Morris (Oklahoma), quarterback J.T. Shrout (Colorado), outside linebacker Deandre Johnson (Miami), quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (Washington State) and running back Ty Chandler (North Carolina).
Defensive back Shawn Shamburger entered the portal on Dec. 12, but withdrew on Dec. 13. He could return to UT. Neither UT nor Shamburger has indicated his intentions.
Tight end Austin Pope, who missed the 2020 season after having preseason surgery for a herniated disc, entered the portal on Dec. 21. Pope announced Sunday that he will remove his name from the NCAA transfer portal, and he intends to use his final year of eligibility with the Vols in 2021.
Pope's name remained in the portal as of Wednesday night.
Outside linebacker Kivon Bennett entered the portal on Dec. 7 after he was dismissed on Dec. 1 following an arrest on gun and drug charges.
The 14 players have played in 402 games at Tennessee with 190 starts.
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.