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Front Page - Friday, September 9, 2016

Vols can’t afford another iffy effort

Link on UT

Dave Link, Knoxville based journalist covering UT sports

Imagine if Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd hadn’t recovered the fumble by UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs in the end zone for a touchdown in overtime last Thursday night.

If an Appalachian State player had recovered, the Vols would have been doomed by a field goal on the Mountaineers’ overtime possession. Instead, Hurd’s fumble recovery and Tennessee’s defensive stand resulted in a 20-13 victory at Neyland Stadium.

Folks are still shaking their heads about the near upset.

At least it wasn’t a loss.

A loss by the Vols would have put a monstrous damper on Saturday’s 8 p.m. game against Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway. A crowd of 150,000 is expected for the Battle at Bristol, where history will be made for the largest crowd ever to watch a football game.

UT has a chance for redemption after a terrible showing in the season opener. And it can get redemption while making history.

“We have to get better in a hurry,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said during his weekly Monday press conference. “We have to have great energy and focus on continuing to improve, and we played a very good (Appalachian State) football team, but the sense of urgency has to pick up and I’ve seen that already with our players. 

“They understand. They know, but we found a way to win a football game when just about everything that could go wrong went wrong.”

Except for Hurd falling on Dobbs’ fumble.

While UT (1-0) dodged a historic upset, unranked Virginia Tech (1-0) waited until Saturday to post a 36-13 home victory over Liberty, a Football Championship Subdivision team.

Virginia Tech trailed 13-10 in the second quarter before the Flames flamed out like an FCS team should against a FBS team.

You can bet the Hokies haven’t taken a fan and media beating like the Vols since their season opening win. Critics made it clear: Tennessee is the most overrated team in the SEC, and maybe the nation.

Jones and his staff and players have battened down the hatches. A win is a win. There are no style points in college football.

“At the end of the game, we found a way to win a football game, and to me, that talks about perseverance, resiliency, and finding a way to win football games,” Jones said. “We’ve talked about that. It’s been a topic of conversation and we were able to do that.”

Senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a team captain and All-SEC player, could only watch as the Vols snatched victory from defeat. The Clarksville native was ejected for targeting in the first quarter with a hit on Appalachian State punt returner Jaquil Capel.

Reeves-Maybin, who will play against Virginia Tech, has been in Knoxville long enough to know skeptics come out in full force on social media and elsewhere when the Vols are down and out.

“Sometimes it might get to some (players) for a couple of seconds, but I think as a whole, we don’t really focus on it too much,” Reeves-Maybin said of the negativity. “I think it’s just something that’s a part of playing for Tennessee. People are going to be watching you.”

UT will try to get a handle on a new-look Virginia Tech team under first-year coach Justin Fuente. He was hired to replace Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech’s head coach of 29 years.

Fuente coached Memphis to a 19-6 record during the past two seasons and was the 2014 American Athletic Conference coach of the year when the Tigers won their first conference football title since 1971.

The Hokies now feature an up-tempo offense and blitzing defense.

“Obviously, a very, very good Virginia Tech football team,” Jones said. “Coach Fuente’s done a tremendous job. I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s been able to do at Memphis, and then obviously, at Virginia Tech.

“When you watch them defensively, they challenge you with man-to-man coverage, different fronts, different coverages. It’s going to be a great, great challenge, and obviously the up-tempo pace of the Virginia Tech offense. It’s a very, very talented wide receiver crew, one of the best wide receiver corps we will face all year.”

Three matchups to watch

Evans vs. UT secondary

Fuente had to replace graduated starting quarterback Michael Brewer, and junior-college transfer Jerod Evans was announced as the starter before the Liberty game.

Evans completed 20 of 32 passes for 221 yards and four touchdowns against the Flames – the most TD passes for a Virginia Tech quarterback since the 2002 season – and didn’t throw an interception. He also ran five times for a net 46 yards, including a 37-yard run to convert a fourth down.

“I was really, really impressed with Evans,” Jones said. “I thought for his first game he did a very good job.”

Evans’ day didn’t end on a good note, though. Fuente benched him late in the third quarter when Evans threw an errant option pitch that was recovered by Liberty. It was the second lost fumble of the day for Evans, who had the ball slip out of his hands as he tried to throw it out of bounds while avoiding a sack.

An early enrollee in January, Evans was a big get for the Hokies as a four-star prospect out of Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College. He threw for 395.5 yards per game and 38 touchdowns in only eight games last year.

Appalachian State’s Taylor Lamb completed 15 of 23 passes for 108 yards and averaged 9 yards per pass in the first half.

DeBord vs. Foster

UT offensive coordinator Mike DeBord spent the week game-planning against Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster, who was retained by Fuente.

Foster has been the Hokies’ defensive coordinator since 1995 and is the longest tenured FBS defensive coordinator in the country.

The architect of Tech’s “Lunch Pail Defense,” Foster won the 2006 Broyles Award for the top assistant in the nation. He was a finalist for the award three other times (1999, 2001, 2005).

“Bud Foster is one of the best there is in the country, and all those defensive players have great experience,” Jones said. “They’ve been in his system. They understand there is no learning curve for them, so they’ve been able to pick up where they left off of being an upper-tier defensive team year in and year out.”

DeBord is in his second season as UT’s offensive coordinator. While his offense improved during the second half of the 2015 season – when the competition got lighter – its debut this season was sub-par.

In its opener, Tennessee averaged 3 yards on 43 rush attempts, and aside from Malone’s 67-yard touchdown, the Vols’ longest pass completion went for 16 yards to Preston Williams.

UT O-line vs. Tech D-line

Appalachian State’s defensive front raised big questions about UT’s offensive line.

Dobbs was sacked twice and pressured often by the Mountaineers.

Redshirt freshman Drew Richmond, former Memphis University School player, made his first career start for UT at right tackle in place of injured Chance Hall.

Tennessee’s guard play of starters Jashon Robertson and Dylan Wiesman was suspect against Appalachian State. Ditto for the play of UT starting center Dylan Wiesman.

“I would say continuity and consistency,” Jones said of UT’s offensive line troubles in the opener.

Virginia Tech has new starting defensive tackles in Nigel Williams and Woody Baron, but both have significant playing time. Senior Ken Ekanem returns as a starter at end.

Five things to watch

Is Dobbs better?

Dobbs is already getting some heat from critics after the Appalachian State game.

He completed 16 of 29 passes for 192 yards, including the TD pass to Malone that tied the game at 13-all in the fourth quarter.

But his interception under pressure late in the first half cost the Vols a chance for a field goal. And his fumble when he got hit in the chest leaping for the goal line in overtime could have been disastrous.

Dobbs said Monday he’s OK from the hit he took in overtime.

“I’m fine,” he said. “The play worked out in our favor, so we were just psyched to get the win.”

Big Bucky

Virginia Tech has a unique weapon in 6-foot-7, 245-pound junior tight end Bucky Hodges.

Hodges caught three passes for 42 yards and two touchdowns against Liberty, one covering 18 yards and the second 24 yards.

After redshirting in 2013, Hodges was a freshman All-American the next year when he had 45 catches for 526 yards and six touchdowns. The 45 catches were the most ever for a freshman tight end at Virginia Tech.

“It’s a challenge,” Jones said, “and they do a great job with Bucky of putting him out on the perimeter, creating one-on-one matchups and letting him go up and get the ball…. It’s going to be a great challenge for our defensive backs.”

UT newcomers

Tennessee played 17 true freshmen during the 2015 season, but only four played in the opener against Appalachian State.

UT freshmen playing against the Mountaineers were safety Nigel Warrior, cornerbacks Marquill Osborne and Baylen Buchanan and wide receiver Tyler Byrd.

However, Osborne, Buchanan, and Warrior were used primarily on special teams. Byrd was one of five wide receivers employed by the Vols, but he didn’t make a catch.

Defensive tackle Jonathan Kongbo, the nation’s top junior college recruit, was the only other UT newcomer to play against the Mountaineers. He didn’t make a tackle

“I didn’t think the game dictated playing a lot of newcomers,” Jones said. “But I challenged a lot of our newcomers (Monday) that they need to step up and they need to have some significant roles, whether it’s special teams or offense or defense. We need more individuals to step up.”

Hokie Ford

Virginia Tech has a legit All-America candidate in junior wide receiver Isaiah Ford, who set single-season school records last season for catches (75) and touchdown catches (11) while racking up 1,164 yards.

At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, Ford is a match-up problem because of his athleticism. He’s started 23 of 26 games since arriving at Virginia Tech as a true freshman in 2014 from Trinity Christian School in Jacksonville, Florida.

Ford caught 11 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown against Liberty.

“Isaiah Ford is a very, very talented player and we have to make sure that we know where he’s at on the field at all times,” Jones said. 

Finding Alvin

Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries against Appalachian State. It was his fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing game dating back to last year.

While Hurd was on point, junior tailback Alvin Kamara wasn’t much of a factor. He had only six carries for 21 yards and had just one carry in the first half.

Last year, Kamara was the Vols’ second-leading pass catcher (34) and tied for the team-high in TD catches (three), but he didn’t catch a pass against Appalachian State.

“We’d like to get Alvin a little more involved with it,” Jones said. “He had about 16 designed plays that are quarterback reads that the game and the defensive scheme dictated whether he was getting the ball or not, but we would like to involve him more. ... And I do believe in the hot hand with a running back. 

“When a running back gets in a rhythm and routine, you want to feed him, but also we have a great dimension to our offense in terms of differences between Alvin and Jalen and being able to capitalize on their different skill sets.”