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VOL. 39 | NO. 42 | Friday, October 16, 2015

Here’s how Vols grade going into second half

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Tennessee wide receiver Josh Smith celebrates his 39-yard catch and run for a fourth down touchdown against Georgia.

-- Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Order has been restored in Vol Nation, at least for now.

Tennessee’s football team restored it with a 38-31 victory over then-No. 19 Georgia last Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

UT’s rally from a 24-3 deficit has much of the fan base back on board with Vols coach Butch Jones and his staff after a precarious week leading up to the game.

Faith in Jones and his staff was shaky after the Vols (3-3) blew double-digit leads in losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas.

Then there were questions about Jones’ play-calling and clock management, rumors of a physical altercation with offensive lineman Mack Crowder and a statement from the university clearing Jones of any wrongdoing in the Crowder incident.

So Jones is off the hot seat, which has been passed to Georgia coach Mark Richt, and the Vols and their fans go into Saturday’s open date feeling good.

“This bye week comes at the appropriate time,” Jones said Sunday night on The Nation (WNML-AM/FM) radio show.

“There are so many goals we need to accomplish this week. This week is critical as we continue to build this football team.

“First and foremost, we need to get our health back. This week will be a big week to get our health back. We’ve been through a six-game stretch that was very challenging and very physical, draining both mentally and physically.”

UT has no easy road ahead.

After the open date, the Vols play at Alabama on Oct. 24 and at Kentucky on Oct. 31. They finish with games against South Carolina, North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt.

Even if the Vols lose to the Alabama, they can finish 8-4 by winning their last five games.

Such a thought would have been laughable amid the chaos during the week of the Georgia game.

Not now, though, so this is a good time to grade the Vols at the midpoint of the season.

Offense

Quarterbacks: C+

Junior Joshua Dobbs raised his season grade against Georgia by gaining 430 yards total offense and being chosen Walter Camp National Offensive Player of the Week.

Early in the game, Dobbs was off target on several passes and victimized by dropped passes. With the Vols’ trailing 24-3, Dobbs was 11 of 23 passing with less than 3 minutes to play in the half.

He got his rhythm in the waning minutes before halftime and finished 25-of-42 passing for 312 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Dobbs led the Vols’ rushing with 118 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries.

It was a drastic improvement from the previous week against Arkansas when Dobbs was 20 of 36 for 232 yards and ran only seven times for 7 yards.

Dobbs is ninth in the SEC in passing yards (1,101) and 10th in quarterback rating (126.0), which combines completion percentage, yards per attempt, interceptions, and touchdowns. He has thrown eight TD passes and two interceptions and is completing 58 percent of his passes (98 of 169).

Dobbs ranks 11th in the SEC in rushing yards (368), has five rushing TDs, and is averaging 5.0 yards per carry.

Freshman Quinten Dormady has played in two games and was sharp against Western Carolina when he completed 6 of 8 passes for 93 yards. Of course, that was against a Football Bowl Subdivision team.

Running Backs: B

Sure, Jalen Hurd’s lost fumble on first-and-goal and 96-yard TD return by Georgia’s Leonard Floyd set a bad tone early against Georgia.

But the 6-foot-3, 242-pound sophomore from Hendersonville Beech High has been the Vols’ workhorse this season and is fifth in the SEC in rushing yards (572) with speed sophomore Alvin Kamara 17th (255 yards).

Hurd finished with 80 yards on 20 carries against Georgia and Kamara gained 8 net yards on seven carries.

Hurd’s 4.54-yard average per carry isn’t in the SEC’s top 10 and trails Kamara (5.67 yards per carry) and Dobbs (5.04), but that’s not surprising.

Hurd is the Vols’ bruising back used in most short-yardage situations (not early in the Oklahoma game) while Kamara is more of a shifty, open-field runner.

The 5-11, 210-pound Kamara is tied for second on the team in catches (15) for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Hurd has nine catches for 85 yards and one touchdown.

UT is third in the SEC in rushing yards per game (220) behind LSU (346.4) and Georgia (231.5). Take away Dobbs’ rushing, and the Vols drop to 10th in the SEC in rushing at 159 yards per game.

Offensive line: C

UT’s line took two hits in preseason when starting senior guard Marcus Jackson and sophomore backup guard Austin Sanders were lost due to injuries. Both sustained torn biceps.

The Vols’ line showed resiliency, especially against Georgia when starting tackle Brett Kendrick was out due to injury, which forced center Coleman Thomas to play tackle alongside right guard Dylan Wiesman with backup tackle Mack Crowder at center.

Crowder and starting guard Jashon Robertson left with injuries in the first half against the Bulldogs, and the Vols inserted two true freshmen on the right side in Chance Hall and Jack Jones. Both freshmen performed admirably.

Senior Kyler Kerbyson, former Knoxville Catholic High player, has emerged as the leader of the line at left tackle.

The Vols have allowed 11 sacks this season, fifth most in the SEC, but didn’t give up a sack in the loss to Arkansas and gave up one against Georgia.

Alabama will provide another stern test for UT’s O-line. After that game, the Vols’ front should have better matchups the rest of the season.

Wide receivers/tight ends: C-

This unit had its best game of the season against Georgia and, if not for it, the team would be on the verge of failing, although tight end Ethan Wolf has been solid all season.

Sophomore Josh Malone, who played at Station Camp High in Gallatin, had five catches for 60 yards against the Bulldogs and now leads UT in catches (17) and is second in receiving yards (169) behind Wolf (15 catches for 213 yards).

Wolf, who had three catches for 56 yards against Georgia, was Dobbs’ most reliable target in the first five games.

Junior Josh Smith, former Christian Academy of Knoxville standout, had UT’s biggest catch of the season with the Vols trailing Georgia 24-3 in the second quarter.

On fourth-and-8 with less than 3 minutes to play, Smith ran a route across the middle, caught a pass slightly thrown behind him, and raced for a 39-yard touchdown.

UT’s defense forced a fumble, and the Vols scored again before half on Dobbs’ 2-yard TD pass to Kamara.

Smith, who was redshirted last season after suffering an ankle injury against Oklahoma, is fourth on the team in catches (11 for 144 yards) with one touchdown.

True freshman Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High had just one catch for 13 yards against Georgia, but had nine catches for 87 yards through the first five games. Jennings, moved from quarterback to receiver in the preseason, also threw a 58-yard TD pass to Dobbs on a wide-receiver pass against Florida.

Another true freshman, 6-4 Preston Williams of Lovejoy High in Hampton, Ga., had an early drop against Georgia but caught two passes for 41 yards, including a 33-yarder. Williams, an impressive athlete at 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, has seven catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns, both against Western Carolina.

Seniors Von Pearson (eight catches, 112 yards) and Johnathon Johnson (four catches, 45 yards) haven’t played up to preseason expectations.

However, Pearson had a crucial catch against Georgia on UT’s first touchdown drive. On fourth-and-4 at Georgia’s 47, Pearson managed to catch a 6-yard pass for a first down while falling on his back. He also had a 19-yard catch against Georgia.

Marquez North, who was fourth on the team receiving last year (30 catches, 320 yards, four TDs), also has started slow. North missed his second consecutive game against Georgia due to back stiffness and has four catches for 38 yards in four games.

Jones dismissed Alton “Pig” Howard from the team midweek before the Georgia game.

Sophomore punter Trevor Daniel of Dickson County High ranks second in the SEC with an average of 47.6 yards per punt.

-- Craig Bisacre/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Although he led UT in receiving last year (54 catches, 618 yards, one TD), Howard was a non-factor this season. He was suspended for the opener against Bowing Green – reportedly for failing a drug test – had one catch against Oklahoma, and suffered a concussion against Western Carolina. He missed the Florida and Arkansas games with injuries (ankle, elbow) before his dismissal.

DEFENSE

Defensive line: C-

When senior hybrid linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt went out with a hip injury against Oklahoma, the Vols were missing not only their defensive leader, but one of their most effective pass rushers and run stoppers.

Maggitt is out for at least the regular season, and his return for a bowl game is doubtful.

Junior LaTroy Lewis has started at Maggitt’s spot at left end in UT’s 4-3 base defense with sophomore Derek Barnett at right end.

Barnett, a freshman All-American from Brentwood Academy, had 10 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss last season, and halfway through this season has two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss.

Clearly, Barnett is not as effective without Maggitt, who had 11 sacks and 15 tackles for loss last year.

UT is 10th in the SEC in rush defense (170.5) and barely above 11th-place Kentucky (170.7).

After getting gashed for 275 rushing yards in the loss to Arkansas, the Vols seemed headed for more of the same against Georgia – even with star running back Nick Chubb on the sideline with a knee injury sustained on the first play of the game.

Georgia, behind the running of Sony Michel, had 137 rushing yards at halftime on 17 carries, and was held to 28 yards after halftime thanks in large part to UT’s interior linemen – starting tackles Owen Williams and Kendal Vickers and true freshmen backups Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie.

Tuttle, however, suffered a broken left fibula and a torn ligiment in his left ankle in the third quarter. He is lost for the season.

Barnett is the leading tackler of the defensive front with 32 tackles (18 solo, 14 assists). Lewis is next with 17 tackles, followed by Corey Vereen with 15, McKenzie with 14, and Tuttle and Vickers with 10 each.

The Vols’ nine sacks are tied for ninth in the SEC with Georgia, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt.

Linebackers: C

Maggitt’s absence also affected this position group.

Jaylen Reeves-Maybin, a junior from Clarksville Northeast High, has taken over UT’s leadership role among the front seven and is playing at an All-SEC level.

UT’s biggest defensive void entering the season was at middle linebacker, where departed senior A.J. Johnson was a mainstay in 2014 before his dismissal from the team with three games left.

Sophomore walk-on Colton Jumper started three games this year, but true freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. of Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis got his second start against Georgia and may hold down the job the rest of the season.

Kirkland Jr., who played extensively as a backup, is fifth on the team in tackles (22) and has two sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss.

Junior Kenny Bynum started at strong-side linebacker against Georgia as the Vols went with their 4-3 base instead of the nickel and dime packages seen more often in previous games.

Secondary: D

UT had much higher expectations for its secondary than this.

The Vols are 13th in the SEC in passing defense, allowing 248.5 yards per game, slightly better than Arkansas (258.3 passing yards allowed per game).

With four interceptions this year, the Vols are tied for ninth-fewest in the SEC with Auburn, Kentucky, and Mississippi State.

UT lost projected starting nickel back Rashaan Gaulden to a broken bone in his foot during the third week of the season, and it was a big blow to the secondary.

UT has one of the SEC’s top cornerbacks in junior Cameron Sutton with sophomore Emmanuel Moseley at the other corner.

Senior Brian Randolph is the starter at free safety and is second on the team in tackles (34).

At strong safety, senior LaDarrell McNeil and sophomore Todd Kelly Jr. are splitting time/starts.

Special Teams: B

If not for Aaron Medley’s missed field goals and a big play by Georgia’s punt return team, special teams would get an “A” for the season.

Sophomore punter Trevor Daniel of Dickson County High School won the starting job in preseason and has been spectacular.

Daniel is second in the SEC in average per punt (47.6 yards on 33 punts) and had one of the biggest plays of the game in the victory over Georgia.

Sophomore Evan Berry leads the nation in kickoff return yardage (550) and average (39.3 yards on 14 returns), and had another huge return against Georgia.

After Davis’ punt return for touchdown, Berry returned the kickoff 46 yards to the Vols’ 47-yard line. UT scored eight plays later on Dobbs’ pass to Smith.

Berry has two kickoff returns for touchdowns this year – an 88-yarder against Western Carolina and a 96-yarder against Arkansas.

Medley, a sophomore from Lawrence County High in Lewisburg, is 9 of 14 on field-goal attempts this season.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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