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VOL. 39 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 18, 2015

With Gators looming, Vols try to focus on WCU

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Running back Jalen Hurd, #1, during the Oklahoma game last week. Hurd and Alvin Kamara should rack up the yardage against Western Carolina’s Catamounts’ defense that’s allowing 179 rushing yards per game.

-- Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Talk about taking the wind out of Neyland Stadium and UT fans, Oklahoma sure did it last Saturday.

Tennessee’s football team will play host to Western Carolina on Saturday in its only matchup this year against a team of Football Championship Subdivision status, formerly Division I-AA.

The Vols are coming off a 31-24 double-overtime home loss to No. 16-ranked Oklahoma, which rallied from a 17-0 deficit and was down 17-3 in the fourth quarter.

It was a stunning collapse by the Vols (1-1) and was witnessed by a sellout crowd of 102,455 in the loudest game ever at Neyland Stadium.

Sure won’t be the same Saturday night against Western Carolina.

This is a mere scrimmage for the Sept. 26 game at Florida, which is UT’s next chance to soothe the pain delivered by Oklahoma.

First, the Catamounts will make the two-hour bus trip across the Great Smoky Mountains from Cullowhee, North Carolina, to Neyland Stadium, where the Vols will be fortunate to have 75,000 in the stands.

“You can’t look ahead to other opponents, so we know to focus on this week’s task, and then Florida will come when it will comes,” UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs said Monday.

“It’s like the first game, people were asking, ‘Are you looking ahead to Oklahoma? No. We’re focused on Bowling Green.’ So it’s just the same this week.”

Not really.

Bowling Green (1-1), which lost to the Vols 59-30 in the season opener, bounced back with a 48-27 victory against Maryland last Saturday, looking like a team capable of contending for the Mid-American Conference title.

Western Carolina (1-1), meanwhile, lost 28-10 at The Citadel in a Southern Conference game between FCS teams (Division I-AA teams).

If the Vols had not blown the Oklahoma game, not fallen out of the polls and not handed their fans another punch to the gut, Western Carolina would have been an OK game.

Not now.

Florida is what matters now.

The Gators (2-0) hardly looked like an SEC East contender during last Saturday’s 31-24 victory against East Carolina, and most believe UT has more talent than Florida. But the Gators have won 10 consecutive games against the Vols.

For now, UT will try to focus on Western Carolina.

“This is where you have to rely on the competitive structure of your program and the character of your program,” UT coach Butch Jones explains.

“I know our kids are ready to get back at it. I have spoken with most of them, and they are eager and ready to go. They are ready to put all eyes on Western Carolina.

“Western Carolina is the most important game because it is the next game. That is kind of the program philosophy. That is why I don’t ever believe in putting too much stock in one particular game. They all count as one.”

Oklahoma was a big one, though.

UT now has lost 28 of its last 29 games against ranked teams. The Vols have lost 18 of their last 22 games against ranked teams at Neyland Stadium.

Optimists say the Vols still have their goals intact, primarily an SEC East title and berth in the league’s championship game.

Jones is preaching that to his team.

“We know (Oklahoma is) a tough loss, but we learned from it,” junior defensive back Cameron Sutton says. “It doesn’t define our season. We have a lot of games left in the rest of the season.

“… We’re just going to move forward from it and prepare for this week. Every game is crucial. Just do a better job this week preparing and get ready for Saturday.”

Jones took responsibility for the loss to Oklahoma, while also saying the Vols made progress from the 2014 game when they lost to the Sooners, 34-10.

“Moving forward, where we haven’t been competitive in the past, we are competitive now,” Jones says. “That is progress. We are working there. We will get there. We expect to win immediately. We expect to win every time we step out onto the football field.

“It’s a week-to-week season. We talk about a snap-and-clear mentality. We are going to learn from it.”

Maybe, but only a win at Florida can snap-and-clear the loss to Oklahoma.

Three matchups to match

Vol receivers vs. WCU secondary

Dobbs and UT’s highly touted receiving corps weren’t clicking against Oklahoma. The result: Dobbs was 13 of 31 for 125 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Defensive back LaDarrell McNeil returns for the Western Carolina game after recovering from “neck instability.”

-- Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

The Vols’ receivers will have a big size advantage over the Catamounts, whose starters in the secondary are listed from 5-foot-10 to a tallest 6-1.

UT’s three starting receivers are all 6-foot-3: Marquez North, Jauan Jennings, and Josh Malone (slotted co-starter with 5-8 Johnathon Johnson).

The Vols need work in their passing game – specifically the deeper passing game. They averaged 9.6 yards per completion against Oklahoma and in two games are averaging 11.8 yards per catch.

Mitchell vs. UT pass defense

Western Carolina returned all 11 starters from the 2014 team that went 7-5, none more important than senior quarterback Troy Mitchell.

Mitchell has thrown for more than 5,500 yards during his career and 37 touchdowns. He’s also an elusive runner and has 88 rushing yards this year (averaging 4.6 yards per carry).

His first two games of 2015 produced varied results.

Mitchell completed 29 of 43 passes for 298 yards with one TD and one interception in a 42-14 win over Mars Hill in the opener, and last week was 19 of 40 for 187 yards with two interceptions and no TDs.

UT’s pass defense, meanwhile, was shaky down the stretch against Oklahoma.

Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield completed 8 of 25 passes for 84 yards with two interceptions in the first three quarters. He completed 11 of his last 14 passes for 103 yards and three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Hurd, Kamara vs. WCU front 7

Tennessee’s rush game should rack up the yardage against a Catamounts’ defense that’s allowing 179 rushing yards per game.

The Vols’ Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara ought to pad their stats before the backups get some snaps.

The Citadel rolled up 341 rushing yards in the victory last week and averaged 4.9 yards per attempt.

UT’s run game went stagnant in the second half against Oklahoma. The Vols were held to 29 yards on 18 carries in the second half and overtime after gaining 100 yards on 27 carries in the first half.

Five things to watch

1. McNeil’s Return

Senior safety LaDarrell McNeil returns for the Western Carolina game, and it couldn’t come soon enough for the Tennessee secondary with the Florida game looming.

Defensive lineman Kyle Phillips will replace the injured Curt Maggitt at linebacker/defensive end for the Western Carolina game.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

McNeil had what Jones called “neck instability” and was out of practice the week before the Bowling Green game, and the UT coach considered McNeil’s return a long shot at the time.

However, McNeil went to see doctors in Texas and was cleared to practice on a limited basis before the Oklahoma game with a timetable set for his return against Western Carolina.

“LaDarrell McNeil has been cleared to play, so he will be back to full-go in practice (Monday),” Jones adds. “It will be great to have him back.”

No doubt it’s a huge boost for the secondary. McNeil started all but one game last year and entering the season had started 31 of the last 32 games, including 22 consecutive during one stretch.

2: Maggitt’s Void, Phillips’ chance

The Vols will be without their defensive leader, hybrid linebacker/end Curt Maggitt, for eight weeks or more due to a hip injury sustained midway through the second quarter against Oklahoma.

Jones, who said Monday Maggitt would miss “an extended period of time,” bumped that to eight weeks on Tuesday.

Maggitt, who had 11 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2014, had three tackles (two for loss) before leaving the Oklahoma game.

“It’s probably the freakish injury that I have ever been a part of,” Jones says, of Maggitt’s injury. “We were in punt safe, and he went to avoid a guy and hurt his hip. That is unfortunate, and we all know what Curt means to us, not only from a leader standpoint and a character standpoint but from a productivity standpoint as well.”

Five-star true freshman Kyle Phillips will get a chance for the starter’s job in place of Maggitt.

Phillips, who played at Nashville Hillsboro, is the son of Tennessee State University athletics director Teresa Phillips.

“Kyle Phillips will have a great opportunity this week in practice and preparation to get game-ready, so we’ll get him going,” Jones says. “And then, it will be pretty much everyone else in that position group.”

3: Who plays, when?

Defensive lineman Kahlil McKenzie, a true freshman, has one tackle after playing in the first two games of the season.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Tennessee needs to shore up its offensive line – particularly on the right side – and Western Carolina presents a chance for clarity before the trip to The Swamp.

After the first quarter of Saturday’s loss, Oklahoma dominated the right side of UT’s O-line, where Dylan Wiesman starts at guard and Brett Kendrick at tackle.

Does freshman Jack Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland High, Wiseman’s backup, get some early snaps against Western Carolina? What about sophomore Coleman Thomas, Kendrick’s backup at right tackle?

This might be a good time to expand the rotation of the line.

“We will continue to push competition just like we do every week,” Jones point out, when asked about the right side of the line against Oklahoma. “You have to earn your right to play through practice, through your body of work, your week of preparation, not just on the field but off the field.

“In terms of the second half, in particularly the fourth quarter, it wasn’t anything magical that (Oklahoma) did. Everyone wants to talk about great halftime adjustments. You have a scheme, and you stick to your scheme.

“They are a very, very talented football program, team, and defense. When you are down by 14 points in the middle of the fourth quarter, you bring more pressure. They brought more pressure than they did in the first half.”

4: Defensive Line Rotation

Starting nose tackle Danny O’Brien was suspended for the Oklahoma game, and his status early in the week for Western Carolina remained the same. O’Brien started all but one game at nose guard in 2014.

WNML’s sports talk show host Jimmy Hyams reported O’Brien was suspended due to a failed drug test.

Hyams also reported senior wide receiver Pig Howard was suspended for the season opener against Bowling Green due to a failed drug test. Howard returned for the Oklahoma game and had one catch for 8 yards.

Senior Owen Williams got the start against Oklahoma and had three tackles (one for loss). Junior Kendal Vickers, the other starter at defensive tackle, didn’t have a tackle against Oklahoma, but had four against Bowling Green.

Their backups are true freshmen, Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie. Tuttle has played in both games this season and has no tackles; McKenzie has played in both games and has one tackle.

“I did think Shy Tuttle, playing really his first extensive period of downs in a very meaningful game (against Oklahoma) and a very hard-fought game, I really, really like what he brought to the table,” Jones explains.

“His playing time will continue to increase at D-tackle. I thought Kahlil McKenzie did some very good things too, this being his first real live-game action. I think both of those individuals, in terms of their volume of repetitions, will continue to increase.

“We need that. We had defensive linemen taking 85, 90 snaps. That is unheard of in a football game.”

5: Medley Blues

After a solid season as a true freshman, place-kicker Aaron Medley has struggled through two games (he’s 2 of 5 on field-goal attempts).

“First of all, Aaron works very hard,” Jones says. “I have the utmost confidence in our kicking unit. I believe in him as does everyone in our football family.”

In the season opener, Medley made a 26-yard field goal, and missed from 42 and 29 yards.

Medley missed a 48-yard attempt in the third quarter against Oklahoma. He made a 19-yarder on the Vols’ first drive when they got inside the 1-yard line (Jones has drawn criticism for opting for a field goal instead of a trying for the touchdown).

“(The second attempt) was still a very, very long field goal, so your percentages of making those, it’s 60 percent, 50-50,” Jones says.

“I thought Aaron did an outstanding job on his kickoffs (3 of 4 touchbacks). You talk about improvements from week one to week two (5 of 10 touchbacks in opener). I thought that he did a very good job there. … Again, that was a difficult field goal (the 48-yarder against Oklahoma).

“He will make those. He will get better, but we stand behind him, and I have the ultimate faith and trust in him.”

Medley made 19 of 20 field-goal attempts from inside 40 yards last season, and was 1 of 6 from beyond 40 yards.

George Bullock, a junior from Knoxville West High, is slotted as the backup place-kicker behind Medley.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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