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Front Page - Friday, October 21, 2016

Vols get midterm B despite back-to-back losses

No teams left on schedule with winning record

Junior end Derek Barnett, seen squaring off againat Alabama, is having an All-American season and has become the heart and soul of UT’s defense. - Jerry Denham | The Ledger

It ended last Saturday with the Vols getting beaten and bruised during the 49-10 loss to No. 1-ranked Alabama at Neyland Stadium.

Sure, it was bad for the Vols and their fans.

All is not lost, though.

Tennessee (5-2, 2-2 SEC) can still reach its goal of winning the SEC East and earn a probable rematch against Alabama (7-0, 4-0) or Texas A&M (6-0, 4-0) in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 3 in Atlanta.

The Vols will be favored to win their last four SEC games at South Carolina, at home against Kentucky and Missouri, and at Vanderbilt. (UT plays Tennessee Tech on Nov. 5). None of those teams has a winning record.

Here is the catch: Tennessee needs Florida (5-1, 3-1) to lose one of its last four SEC games. The Gators, who have an open date Saturday, play Georgia on Oct. 29, followed by a road game at Arkansas, a home game against South Carolina, and a road game against LSU (Nov. 19). They finish with a non-conference game against Florida State.

Tennessee would win a tiebreaker with Florida due to its 38-28 victory on Sept. 24, and if it wins out would knock Kentucky (3-3, 2-2) out of contention for the East title. It would be the Vols’ first time in the SEC championship game since 2007.

“We’ve put ourselves in position to be playing meaningful games after the bye week,” Tennessee Coach Butch Jones says.

Hey, it’s the best scenario in years. Here’s my mid-season report card as the Vols take a break this weekend.

Quarterback: B+

Tennessee’s offense revolves around senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs, and the Vols wouldn’t be in position to win the East without him.

Forget the Alabama game, Dobbs’ worst of the season. He was 16 of 27 passing for 92 yards with the 58-yard interception return by Ronnie Harrison at the end of the first quarter, and his minus-31 rushing yards (thanks to three sacks) was a season low.

Dobbs’ quarterback rating (134.0) ranks seventh in the SEC, and is pulled down by his nine interceptions. But he’s fourth in passing yards (1,525), and his 14 TD passes are tied for third (three-way) behind Arkansas’ Austin Allen with 18.

Dobbs has gained 472 yards on 89 carries – a 5.3-yard average – but his net rushing yardage is 293 for a 3.3-yard average due to sacks/tackles for loss.

Let’s not forget: Dobbs had 459 total yards in the near upset of Texas A&M; he threw the Hail Mary to beat Georgia, when he accounted for four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing); against Florida, he accounted for five TDs (four passing, one rushing) as the Vols broke the 11-game losing streak.

UT can be thankful Dobbs isn’t among the many injured players during the open date.

Running backs: B

Tennessee’s rushing attack/backs are, in part, a reflection of the offensive line’s work, and the Vols one-two punch of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara deserve an above-average grade.

Hurd, a junior, leads the Vols in rushing (435 yards) despite missing the Texas A&M game and most of the second half of Georgia due to injury. He’s averaging 3.8 yards per carry and has two rushing touchdowns.

Kamara, who spent his first season at Alabama, has 313 rushing yards and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry with three touchdowns. He had a huge game against Texas A&M when Hurd was out, rushing for 127 yards and two touchdowns and catching eight passes for 161 yards and a touchdown. Kamara is tied for the team-high in catches (22) for 260 yards and three touchdowns, tied for second best on the team.

Sophomore John Kelly rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown against Texas A&M.

After the Vols were held to 32 rushing yards against Alabama, they rank seventh in the SEC in rushing yards (1,187), but their average per carry (4.0) was third worst in the league.

Offensive line: C-

This unit was expected to have its best season in Jones’ four years at UT, but it has been decimated by injuries. Thus, it squeaks by with an average grade.

Tennessee finished the Alabama game with only one starter from the season opener, center Coleman Thomas, still in the game – and Thomas was beaten out by Dylan Wiesman for the starting center’s job for the third game against Ohio.

Sophomore Jack Jones started the third game at right guard when Wiesman moved from guard to center. Jones was solid in the next four games and was the only UT offensive lineman who started against Texas A&M still playing at the end of the Alabama game.

Wiesman missed the game due to injury, and left guard Jashon Robertson was limited to special teams. During the game, left tackle Brett Kendrick (Christian Academy of Knoxville) and right tackle Chance Hall left due to injuries.

Tennessee was forced to use redshirt freshmen Drew Richmond and Venzell Boulware against the Tide along with true freshman Marcus Tatum, who burned what was expected to be a redshirt season.

The Vols have given up 17 sacks – tied for the most in the SEC with Arkansas and Georgia – and the minus-151 yards lost by sacks leads the league.

Wide receivers/tight ends: C

There have been too many dropped passes by UT’s receivers and tight ends.

Junior Josh Malone is tied for the team-high in catches (22) and leads in receiving yards (402), average per catch (19.3), and touchdown catches (five). However, Malone probably leads the team in drops.

Sophomore wideout Jauan Jennings has been the highlight of the group. He’s third on the team in catches (20), second in receiving yards (301) and average (15.1) and tied for second in TD catches (three).

His catch on the Hail Mary to beat Georgia was the season’s highlight. He also had the big TD catch against Florida.

Three players are tied for third in catches with 10 each: true freshman wide receiver Tyler Byrd (120 yards), tight end Ethan Wolf (111 yards, one touchdown) and Hurd (81 yards, two touchdowns).

Defensive line: B+

Junior end Derek Barnett is having an All-American season and has played his way into a potential top-10 NFL draft pick. He’s become the heart and soul of the defense with season-ending injuries to senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) and cornerback Cam Sutton (foot).

Barnett’s six sacks are tied for second-best in the SEC, and all have come in the four SEC games. His 25 career sacks are tied for third on Tennessee’s career list with Jonathan Brown (1994-97). He’s got the team-high 11.5 tackles for loss, and his sack and strip against Georgia was critical in the comeback victory. It caused Jacob Eason to lose the ball in the end zone, and UT’s Corey Vereen recovered for UT’s first lead of the game.

Vereen, a senior from Winter Garden, Florida, has started the last five games at left end after LaTroy Lewis started the first two. He has 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

Lewis and sophomore Jonathan Kongbo are in the end rotation, Lewis more than Kongbo, who hasn’t played to his billing as the nation’s best junior-college end prospect.

Tennessee’s interior front took a big loss when senior tackle Danny O’Brien was dismissed from the team Oct. 10 – two days after being carted off the field with an injury against Texas A&M. O’Brien started every game at one of the tackle spots and had three sacks. He played with a nasty edge the Vols will miss.

Fourth-year junior Kendal Vickers has started every game at the other tackle spot and has 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack.

Sophomore tackle Kahlil McKenzie left the Alabama game with a shoulder injury and is out for the remainder of the season. It was a tough break for McKenzie, who played his best game at Texas A&M with a career-high five tackles.

Sophomore tackle Shy Tuttle has recovered from a broken fibula last year against Georgia, and his role will increase if McKenzie is out. Tuttle has 10 tackles in six games.

Linebackers: C

You can’t put all the blame on the injury-riddled linebacker corps, but Alabama and Texas A&M gashed the Vols for 791 combined rushing yards. The Aggies rushed for 353 yards (7.1-yard average) and four touchdowns and the Tide ran for 438 yards (8.9-yard average) and five touchdowns.

As a result, Tennessee dropped to 13th in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 219.4 yards per game, which ranks 100th in the nation.

Tennessee has been without starting linebackers Reeves-Maybin (shoulder injury) and Darrin Kirkland Jr. (ankle) since the Ohio game when both were injured. Sutton also was hurt against Ohio.

Reeves-Maybin, a senior,  will miss the rest of the season after having a second shoulder surgery this year, according to John Brice of 247Sports.

Kirkland Jr., a sophomore,  was questionable for the Alabama game and missed his fifth consecutive game. He’s expected to be ready to go for South Carolina.

Former walk-on Colton Jumper replaced Kirkland Jr. at the ‘Mike’ linebacker, and while UT coaches praise Jumper, he’s no Kirkland. Jumper, who played at Chattanooga Baylor, is the Vols’ second-leading tackler with 42 (25 solo, 17 assists) and has an interception and fumble recovery.

There’s also a drop-off from Reeves-Maybin to his backup, Cortez McDowell, a junior. McDowell was hurt against Texas A&M and didn’t play against Alabama. In his place, junior Elliott Berry got the start against the Tide and had nine tackles, two for loss.

Also missing is redshirt freshman Quart’e Sapp, who suffered an ACL injury against Ohio and is out for the season.

Like most position groups, it’s tough for third-string linebackers to match up against the likes of Alabama’s starters, but if Kirkland returns and makes it through the last five games, he’ll bolster the Vols’ chances of winning out.

Secondary: B-

Losing Sutton was a big blow, and big plays have been a problem for the secondary.

Tennessee has used three different starters at left cornerback since Sutton was injured. Junior Justin Martin started against Florida, junior Emmanuel Moseley started against Georgia and Alabama, and senior Malik Foreman started against Texas A&M.

Moseley has been the starter at right corner when he wasn’t on the left side. Foreman started at right corner against Georgia, and true freshman Baylen Buchanan started against Alabama.

Junior Todd Kelly Jr. has started every game at strong safety and leads the Vols in tackles with 50 (30 solo, 20 assists) and interceptions (two).

Sophomore Micah Abernathy started every game at free safety except for Texas A&M, where Evan Berry got the start. However, Abernathy pulled up with an apparent leg injury against Alabama.

At nickel back in the five-DB set, Foreman has two starts and third-year sophomore Rashaan Gaulden (Independence High in Spring Hill) has three starts.

Tennessee is fifth in the SEC and 41st in the nation in passing yardage allowed per game (207.7).

Special teams B+

Junior Trevor Daniel (Dickson County High) leads the SEC in punts (45) while averaging 43.8 yards per punt, fifth in the league among starting punters.

Tennessee is averaging 38.6 yards net per punt, compared to opponents’ 37.4 yards net per punt.

Junior kicker Aaron Medley (Marshall County High) has made all 27 of his PAT kicks this year – he’s missed one of 125 in his career – and is 6 of 8 on field-goal attempts. He has a 47-yard miss wide right against Virginia Tech and a 55-yard miss short against Ohio.

Evan Berry is second in the SEC in kickoff return average (27.8 yards) on 12 returns. He’s yet to break one for a touchdown – he had three TDs on kickoff returns last year – but has made a couple of crucial returns. He had a 43-yarder against Florida and a 20-yarder on a short kickoff by Georgia that set up the winning Hail Mary pass.

With the injury to Sutton – an All-American last year as a punt returner and cornerback – Kamara has taken over the punt return duties. He’s averaging 10.2 yards on 18 returns with the longest of 32 yards.

However, Tennessee’s punt return average (9.0) for the season is well short of its opponents’ average (15.5). Tennessee is averaging 25.1 yards on kickoff returns with opponents gaining 19.4 yards on kickoff returns.

Coaching: B+

Jones and his staff have Tennessee with a shot at winning the East despite the roster attrition and scoring deficits the team has overcome during the first seven games.

The Vols’ coaches can take some credit for the team’s inspired rallies to victory, particularly against Florida and Georgia.

Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord took some criticism for a conservative game plan against Alabama, but in fairness he was facing one of the nation’s best defenses with a depleted offensive line.

Likewise, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has done an admirable job with a patchwork defense. Against Alabama he was without four of his top five defenders: Sutton, Reeves-Maybin, Kirkland Jr., and O’Brien.

It all starts with Jones. He’s got the Vols where they need to be with five games to play.

Overall: B

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.