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VOL. 39 | NO. 41 | Friday, October 9, 2015

Vols coach struggling on and off the field

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Rumors of an offseason altercation between Coach Butch Jones and senior offensive lineman Mack Crowder were denied by the coach during a press conference this week.

-- Ap File Photo/Wade Payne

Please, coach. Just say the right thing. Please. Tennessee football coach Butch Jones lost another press conference Monday, two days after his team blew a 14-0 lead and lost to Arkansas 24-20 at Neyland Stadium.

It was more of the same for the Vols and their rabid fans.

The Vols (2-3, 0-2 SEC) blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter in the Sept. 12 loss to Oklahoma and blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter in the Sept. 26 loss to Florida.

Fans are turning on Jones. So is the media. Who knows, maybe some players are.

Then Jones says this Monday as the Vols began preparations for underdog roles against Georgia on Saturday at Neyland Stadium and at Alabama on Oct. 24:

“I know everybody hurts. I hurt along with everyone, but just like in life, you have to get up. In these times, you really find out who is with you and who is against you. You just write it down, put it in your back pocket and file it away for future reference.”

Sounds like a threat to critics.

You can bet one reporter is in Jones’ back pocket after later asking the third-year UT coach about rumors he punched Vols center Mack Crowder during preseason camp.

Crowder, a fifth-year senior who played at Bristol’s Tennessee High School, started at center last year and was moved into a reserve’s role during preseason. The day after the move was announced, Crowder missed practice for unspecified reasons.

Here was the verbal exchange Monday between Seth Stokes, co-host and producer for The Swain Event (former UT receiver Jayson Swain’s radio show) on AM-1180 WVLZ.

“Coach, I have it on really good authority that there was a physical altercation at some point between you and a player,” Stokes said. “Is there anything you can comment about that?”

“Yeah, absolutely ridiculous,” Jones responded.

Stokes tweeted later Monday: “Listen folks, I’m not going to just throw a question like that out there for the hell of it. I’m smarter than that.”

It was that kind of day for Jones, who in earlier Monday pressers tried (and failed) to explain the decision not to go for a touchdown from inside the 1 and the meltdown against Oklahoma, and questionable play calling and clock management against Florida.

Instead of saying, “I need to do a better job coaching,” Jones compounds the problems with confusing answers.

Jones has never in his coaching career been under such scrutiny, and it probably won’t let up anytime soon.

Georgia dropped from No. 8 to No. 19 in the Associated Press poll after last Saturday’s 38-10 loss to Alabama, which moved from No. 13 to No. 8 in the poll.

The Bulldogs have won five consecutive games against the Vols and were picked to win the SEC East in the preseason. Mark Richt is in his 15th year as Georgia’s coach.

No doubt the Bulldogs are stinging from the Alabama loss. Jones knows the Vols will get Georgia’s best game. Such is football life in the SEC.

“This is what we all signed up for, is to compete in the toughest football conference in America,” Jones said. “I think you see that week in and week out. There are no easy games on our schedule. Every game is a challenge in and of itself, from parity in this league, from the quality from the top to bottom.”

UT fans, meanwhile, are re-evaluating expectations.

Instead of an eight- or nine-win season, they may be shooting for six or seven wins.

Losses to Georgia and Alabama would put the Vols 2-5 with games left against Kentucky, South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri, and Vanderbilt.

The Vols haven’t shown the ability to maintain leads or close out games, so why does it start now?

Their confidence has got to be shaken.

“I see us making progress,” Jones said. “Unfortunately it’s not showing up on the scoreboard, but eventually it will.”

If it’s not until 2016, look for Jones to make staff changes after this season with offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and wide receivers coach/passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni on the hottest seats.

As for Jones, he’s probably back, whether you like it or not.

Matchups to watch

Georgia Rush vs. UT’s ‘D’: Georgia’s Nick Chubb is one of the SEC’s premier backs and a big reason the Bulldogs are second in the league in rushing at 244.8 yards per game.

Georgia is averaging 6.5 yards per carry and has the league-high 15 rushing TDs – despite scoring only one against Alabama on Chubb’s 83-yard run at the end of the third quarter when the game was out of reach. His run accounted for almost half of Georgia’s 193 rushing yards against the Tide.

Chubb finished with 146 yards on 20 carries, and if not for the long run, his streak of 13 consecutive 100-yard games would have been in jeopardy. The streak tied Herschel Walker’s streak of consecutive 100-plus rushing yard games for Georgia.

“It’s a challenge because (Chubb) possesses so many traits of being a great running back,” Jones says. “He can get the tough yards. He can put his shoulders down. He has great burst, acceleration and pad level. He can also make the second-level defender miss. It really challenges your discipline.”

Chubb is second in the SEC in rushing with 745 yards and averaging 8.2 yards per carry. His backup, Sony Michel, has rushed for 276 yards and four touchdowns and is averaging 6.7 yards per carry.

Arkansas rushed for 275 yards against the Vols last week and dominated the second half with its ground game by running 43 plays to the Vols’ 26.

UT Secondary vs. Lambert: Georgia’s Greyson Lambert didn’t have a good game against Alabama, but he’s still ranked second in the SEC in quarterback ratings behind Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen.

Lambert, the junior transfer from Virginia, was 10 of 24 for 86 yards and an interception and a lost fumble. He was replaced by sophomore Brice Ramsey, who completed 1 of 6 passes for 20 yards and threw two interceptions before Lambert came back in.

Jones says the talent surrounding Georgia’s quarterback makes the job easier.

“They have very big, strong, veteran offensive linemen,” Jones notes. “They have good receivers. All the quarterback has to do is manage the football game. It is going to be a great challenge against a great football team coming in here on Saturday.”

Before the Alabama game, Lambert was a combined 33-of-35 passing for 476 yards in the two previous games against South Carolina and Southern. Still, the Bulldogs rank only ninth in the SEC in passing yards per game (203 yards).

UT has given up 502 passing yards the last two games with Arkansas’ Brandon Allen throwing for 219 yards and a touchdown.

Big plays have been a problem for the UT secondary, which has given up 199 yards on four plays the last two games – including Antonio Callaway’s catch-and-run 63-yard TD with 1:26 left in Florida’s 28-27.

Dobbs vs. Georgia ‘D’: After rushing for 136 yards on 18 carries at Florida, UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs had just seven carries for 7 yards against Arkansas.

UT needs for Dobbs to be effective with the run game – even if the Vols’ staff has concerns about keeping him healthy.

Jones said Dobbs’ lack of carries against Arkansas was dictated by Arkansas’ defense, and not due to injury concerns.

“Some of the things with Arkansas are different with them being safety-activated the way they are,” Jones says. “The way they play their linebackers, we did have some designed runs called for (Dobbs), then a lot of them are run-pass options like we have every week.

“There were some different nuances in the game plan, but a lot of it dictates on the looks that (Dobbs) sees whether it’s front, whether it’s coverage, whether it’s a lineman on the linebackers.”

Wide receiver Alton “Pig” Howard was dismissed from the team earlier this week for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Coach Butch Joes refused to elaborate on the details of the dismissal.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Dobbs posted season-highs in completions (20) and attempts (36) against Arkansas despite sub-par play by receivers, who continue with inconsistent route running and dropped passes.

Nor has Dobbs become an improved passer from 2014 under the tutelage of DeBord, the first-year coordinator who worked with Dobbs in the spring on his throwing mechanics and footwork.

5 Things to watch

UT Wideouts: UT will be without receiver Alton “Pig” Howard for the rest of the season after he was dismissed from the team Wednesday.

Howard missed the previous two games for what UT said was a concussion and was suspended for the season opener for reportedly failing a drug test.

He was the team’s leading receiver in 2014.

UT also played without Marquez North against Arkansas due to a stiff back.

North, UT’s fourth leading receiver in 2014, attempted to go through pre-game warm-ups against Arkansas before being pulled from the game with stiffness in his back. He is expected back for Georgia.

True freshman Preston Williams started for Howard and had a costly lost fumble inside the Arkansas 10-yard line with UT leading 17-14 in the second quarter.

The Vols need Howard and North to bolster its much-maligned receiver corps. UT has only three touchdown catches from its wide receivers this season, and two came against Western Carolina.

Vols’ Fragility: If the Vols build another lead against Georgia, will they blow it again?

What if UT falls behind early? Do they quit against the Bulldogs?

Not if the Vols follow leader Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a junior linebacker from Clarksville Northeast High.

“We’ll never lose motivation,” he explains. “We’ll never lose focus. It might look like that from the outside, but internally we’ve got a strong group of guys. We don’t let these past games affect us. The Oklahoma game hasn’t came back or the Florida game hasn’t came back to bite us. Each game is a new game.

“It’s not like we’re looking back on the past, like bad things are going to happen. That’s not how we operate. We all have got faith in each other. We have trust in each other. We love each other, and we’re going to keep grinding and we’re going to end up having a great season.”

UT was 2-3 five games into the 2014 season, finished the regular season 6-6, and beat Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.

“We’ve referenced (that common record) just because we know what it feels like to be in this position,” says Reeves-Maybin. “It’s team 119. Team 119 hasn’t done anything yet. We’ll just keep everyone focused and stay grinding.

“No one’s going to give up. No one’s going to quit. It’s going to be fun to see how this season turns out. There’s a lot of people doubting us right now. All the guys, the guys in our room are depending on each other. We’ll finish strong.”

Missing Sacks: The Vols didn’t have a sack against Arkansas and have only eight this season, and just three by defensive linemen.

Like the Vols, Georgia hasn’t gotten to quarterbacks as much as it would like. The Bulldogs are tied with UT with eight sacks on the season.

UT had 35 sacks last season and is clearly missing defensive end Curt Maggitt, who hurt his hip against Oklahoma and is out indefinitely.

Maggitt led the Vols with 11 sacks last season and had 15 tackles for loss.

With Maggitt out, UT doesn’t have the pressure from both ends it had earlier in the season.

Sophomore Derek Barnett, who had 10 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss in 2014, has one sack and 2.5 tackles for loss in five games this year.

McKenzie and Tuttle: UT true freshmen Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie had their most productive games against Arkansas, and the defensive line rotation would benefit from similar play against Georgia.

Each had five tackles against Arkansas.

McKenzie, of Clayton Valley Charter School and Walnut Creek, Calif., had two solo tackles and three assists.

Tuttle, of North Davidson High in Midway, N.C., had one tackle and four assists.

“I was very encouraged,” Jones says. “I thought Shy played the best game he’s played all year. When you see [him at] 300-plus pounds, I thought his effort was outstanding. He was able to win some one-on-one matchups in the pass protection area against the offensive linemen.

“I though Kahlil did some very good things of holding his gap and being active. When we watched the film, we were very, very encouraged with those two individuals. They did a very, very good job.”

Smokey Greys: UT probably will don its new Smokey Grey/NIKE uniforms for the Georgia game.

“I want to announce that it will be a Smokey Grey game, so we will debut our Smokey Grey uniforms, which does not help you win a football game,” says Jones.

It can’t hurt, though.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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