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Front Page - Friday, September 16, 2016

High-scoring Ohio a good warmup for Florida

Link on UT

Dave Link, Knoxville based journalist covering UT sports

Tennessee football returns to normalcy this week, if you call a noon EDT kickoff normal.

The Vols survived a Thursday night scare in the season opener against Appalachian State in Neyland Stadium. Then they roared from behind last Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway and beat Virginia Tech 45-24 in the Pilot Flying J. Battle at Bristol before a college football record crowd of 156,990.

Next up for the No. 15-ranked Vols (2-0) is Ohio University (1-1) on Saturday, and yes, it’s a noon kickoff (SEC Network).

But at least the Vols are playing on a Saturday, and they’re playing inside Neyland Stadium, not a NASCAR track.

It’s UT’s final tune-up before starting the real season, the SEC season. And for the Vols, the SEC start couldn’t be more rugged: Florida on Sept. 24 at Neyland Stadium, followed by road games at Georgia and Texas A&M and a home game against Alabama on Oct. 15.

This week, Tennessee’s focus is Ohio, which hasn’t exactly looked like a team expected to contend for the Mid-American Conference’s East Division title.

The Bobcats lost at home to Texas State 56-54 in triple overtime in the Sept. 3 season opener. Texas State was picked to finish near the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference.

Ohio bounced back last Saturday with a 37-21 win at Kansas, which is projected to finish in the Big 12 basement.

Ohio is no trap game for the Vols. It’s a warm-up for Florida.

Tennessee coach Butch Jones said all the right things during his weekly press conference when he recapped the Battle at Bristol and previewed the Ohio game.

“I have had the opportunity now to get to know Coach (Frank) Solich, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what he’s built in Athens, Ohio,” Jones said. 

“You look at their coordinators (Tim Albin/offense, Jimmy Burrow/defense), they’ve been together now for 12 years. You talk about consistency in a football program, and they’ve built a great football program. They’ve been bowl eligible nine out of the last 10 years.

“Let’s not forget this is a football team that lost to Appalachian State (31-29) in the (Camellia) Bowl game by a last second field goal, and they were way up at one point in the contest.”

Solich, Albin, and Burrow are the only trio of head coach and coordinators in the entire FBS who have been together for 12 years.

Prior to Ohio, Solich was head coach at Nebraska for six years, taking over when Tom Osborne who retired after the Cornhuskers beat Tennessee 42-17 in the Orange Bowl to end the 1997 season.

Jones was offensive coordinator at Ferris State that year, and in 1998 became tight ends coach at Central Michigan, where he was head coach from 2007-09.

In his final year at Central Michigan, Jones’ team beat Solich’s Bobcats 20-10 in the 2009 MAC Championship Game. Jones was hired after the 2009 season to be head coach at Cincinnati, where he spent three seasons before being hired by UT in 2013.

Jones knows to give any MAC team respect, having been there.

“(The Bobcats) come in averaging 45 points per game,” Jones added. “The thing that’s going to challenge our maturity as a football team is last week they controlled the ball against Kansas, a Big 12 opponent, for 43 minutes of the game, so possessions are going to be at a premium, and they also held Kansas to 26 rushing yards.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. It’s a week-to-week season, and we have to make that considerable progress that we made from Week 1 to Week 2 and into Week 3 as we move forward.”

Tennessee has an eight-game winning streak dating back to last season, its longest since the 13-0 national championship season in 1998. It should be nine by next Saturday afternoon, when UT starts focusing on ending an 11-game losing streak to Florida.

Three matchups to watch

UT QBs vs. Ohio secondary

UT starter Joshua Dobbs and backup Quinten Dormady should be able to put up some big numbers – along with the Vols’ receiving corps – against a Bobcat secondary that’s struggled through two games.

Kansas quarterback Montell Cozart threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns on 17-of-24 passing last Saturday, but that paled in comparison to the stats put up by Texas State’s Tyler Jones in the opener.

Jones, a senior, threw for a school single-game record 418 yards and four touchdowns on 40-of-55 passing against Ohio. Seven Texas State players caught at least three passes each.

Ohio returns only one defensive back with significant playing time in senior strong safety Toran Davis. It started sophomore Kylan Nelson at free safety, senior Randy Stites at left cornerback, and redshirt freshman Mayne Williams at right cornerback.

Dobbs rushed for 106 yards and two touchdowns against Virginia Tech – breaking Jimmy Streater’s career rushing yardage record for a UT quarterback set in 1979 – but Tennessee might be wise to back off on Dobbs’ running against Ohio. He needs to be 100 percent for Florida.

Ohio run game vs. UT front 7

Sure, Kansas isn’t going to stop many teams, but Ohio racked up 370 rushing yards (net of 239) last Saturday – even with its top running back, junior A.J. Ouellette, missing the game due to injury against Texas State.

Senior quarterback Greg Windham, who won the starting job in preseason, led the Bobcats with 146 rushing yards, averaging 9.1 yards on 16 carries and breaking a 53-yarder that set up the first touchdown. He scored on a 23-yard run early in the second quarter.

Junior Dorian Brown rushed for 122 yards on 20 carries (6.1 yards per carry). The Bobcats averaged 5.8 yards on 57 carries.

In the victory over Texas State, the Bobcats rushed for 237 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Brown was the leading rusher with 67 yards, Maleek Irons had 62 yards, and Ouellette had 45 yards – including a 40-yarder – before he was hurt.

Tennessee’s defense has been vulnerable to the run in its first two games.

Appalachian State rushed for 184 net yards and one touchdown and averaged 4.3 yards per carry in the opener. Virginia Tech ran for 186 net yards and two touchdowns and averaged 4.1 yards per carry.

UT O-line vs Ohio D-line

What happened to Tennessee’s offensive line?

It was supposed to be bigger, stronger, and better this year with all the 2015 starters back except for left tackle Kyler Kerbyson.

To begin with, right tackle Chance Hall is out for another two weeks with a knee injury sustained in preseason. Redshirt freshman Drew Richmond of Memphis University School has started two games in place of Hall and has not graded well. Nor has junior Jashon Robertson, the starter at left guard.

Starting center Coleman Thomas was pulled during the Virginia Tech game and replaced by Dylan Wiesman, the starter at right guard. Sophomore Jack Jones, former Murfreesboro Oakland standout, took over for Wiesman at right guard. Look for more playing time for Jones and Wiesman.

Dobbs has been sacked twice in each of the Vols’ first two games.

Despite the shuffling on the O-line, the Vols rushed for 239 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry against the Hokies, thanks in large part to Dobbs getting more active in the rushing game.

If the Vols look to throw on Ohio, UT’s offensive line needs a good showing before it takes on Florida’s defensive front.

Five things to watch

Vols’ start

Tennessee was able to overcome its second consecutive bad start against Virginia Tech, which took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.

Sound familiar? In UT’s season opener, Appalachian State took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter and led 13-3 at halftime before the Vols rallied for a 20-13 overtime victory.

UT has been outscored 21-3 in the first quarter of its first two games. It might be able to withstand another slow start against Ohio, but not each week in the SEC.

“Very, very disappointed with our start,” Jones said. “I think that’s something that this football team, we have to start faster. We’ll do some different things to try to manufacture that like we do every week in practice. I didn’t think we maintained a consistent amount of intensity that I think you need to play for over 60 minutes.”

Micah Abernathy

Sophomore Micah Abernathy set a Tennessee record with three of the Vols’ five fumble recoveries against Virginia Tech.

Abernathy, who was the SEC’s defensive player of the week, earned the starting free safety’s job in preseason to replace All-SEC player Brian Randolph, a senior in 2015.

Abernathy’s first fumble recovery at Virginia Tech’s 5-yard line came early in the second quarter with UT trailing 14-0 and set up Dobbs’ 5-yard touchdown pass to Jauan Jennings. His third fumble recovery, which came during punt coverage, led to another UT touchdown, Dobbs’ 27-yard run for a 38-17 lead.

Last year, Abernathy played in 12 games at nickel back and special teams. He was a four-star cornerback out of Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Georgia.

“I’m excited for him,” Jones pointed out. “He’s earned that. He’s an individual who’s continued to grow and develop in our football program. He has a knack for the football, obviously, with three fumble recoveries. 

“If you have a word that defines Micah Abernathy it’s consistency week in and week out.”

UT’s ankle injuries

Sophomore middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. won’t play Saturday after hurting his ankle against Virginia Tech.

Kirkland Jr., a junior from Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis, had seven tackles and a sack before being hurt late in the third quarter.

Also leaving the game was UT starting defensive LaTroy Lewis, who was hurt in the first half.

“Darrin will be out this (Ohio) game,” Jones said. “It’s a high ankle (sprain). After this week, it will be a week-to-week progression to see how he can get back. The good thing was it’s a high ankle.

“Same thing with LaTroy Lewis. He’ll be out this game and LaTroy will probably be out for a couple of weeks, and then it’s going to be how quickly the body can heal.”

With Lewis out, Tennessee relied on its depth at D-line by playing 13 different players. Shy Tuttle, Alexis Johnson, and Kyle Phillips each played for the first time this season.

Tuttle, a sophomore from Midway, North Carolina, played for the first time since suffering a broken fibula and ankle ligament injury during UT’s victory over Georgia last Oct. 10.

UT linebacker rotation

The Vols will be hard-pressed to replace Kirkland Jr., who combines with senior Jalen Reeves-Maybin for one of the better linebacker duos in the SEC.

There’s a drop-off after both of them, and a concern going into the season would be their replacements in case of injuries.

Junior Colton Jumper, a former walk-on from Chattanooga Baylor, took over for Kirkland against Virginia Tech after the injury. However, junior Cortez McDowell played most of the Virginia Tech game after Reeves-Maybin was ejected for targeting.

Tennessee’s two linebackers are interchangeable in the 4-2-5 base defense.

“We have some options there (at linebacker),” Jones noted. “Colton Jumper’s done a good job. We thought he gained valuable repetitions against Virginia Tech. Cortez McDowell gained valuable repetitions against App State. Quart’e Sapp has been doing some good things for us in practice as well.”

Vol receivers

Before the SEC schedule begins, the Vols need to find at least one go-to wide receiver, and the most likely candidate is junior Josh Malone of Station Camp High in Gallatin.

Malone, at 6-3 and 200 pounds, gives the Vols a receiver with the athleticism to catch jump balls over defenders, like he did Saturday for a 38-yard touchdown against Virginia Tech. Malone also caught a 67-yarder for a touchdown against Appalachian State.

However, the Vols’ wide receivers have combined for just 13 catches for 182 yards and three touchdowns this season. Preston Williams is the leader in catches (five) but played sparingly against Virginia Tech due to missing practice time for an injury.

Malone has four catches for 127 yards this season, and Jennings has three for 7 yards and one TD.

“We want to push the ball more down the field (on pass plays),” Jones said. “We had a number of plays down the field called, particularly in the first game, but also Saturday night as well but we weren’t able to get the ball off. That will be a point of contention again because we do need big splash plays.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.