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Front Page - Friday, November 18, 2016

For better or worse, Dobbs defines 4-year Jones era

Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs will be one of 11 senior scholarship players honored at Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. home finale against Missouri at Neyland Stadium.

Their legacies as Vols largely will be defined against Missouri and at Vanderbilt in their last games of the 2016 season – and by what happens Saturday afternoon in Baton Rouge.

The Vols (7-3, 3-3 SEC) need Florida (7-2, 5-2) to lose at LSU (6-3, 4-2) and must win out in order to win the East Division for a spot in the SEC championship game against Alabama.

If the Vols don’t win the East, they will fall short of their primary goal for 2016. This season was East Division or Bust. And if they don’t win the East this year, when will they have a better chance?

Tennessee opened as a 14-point favorite to beat Missouri (3-7, 1-5) and should be favored the next Saturday at Vanderbilt (4-6, 1-5). Missouri beat visiting Vanderbilt 26-17 last Saturday.

UT coach Butch Jones was asked this week if he is comfortable with the legacy Team 120 leaves.

“I’m proud of this football team and everything they’ve accomplished,” Jones said. “We’ve played the most difficult, No. 1 schedule in the country. We’re 7-3 and we’re playing meaningful games in November, and that’s what it’s all about.”

Tennessee’s strength of schedule is ranked No. 20 in one poll, less difficult in others. ESPN has the Vols at No. 41.

“You look at defensively, I believe we have five players out for the year. We’ve had eight different starting combinations in the secondary. It’s pretty hard to be consistent when you have that, and then you look at the number of players who have missed games.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been a season like this in football, but you look at what we’ve accomplished and I’m proud of our guys.”

Dobbs, who played at Alpharetta (Georgia) High School, has been the starter since midway through his freshman year, Jones’ first season as Tennessee’s coach. He’s played a major role in Jones’ rebuild of a program stagnant in Phillip Fulmer’s later years, briefly fueled in Lane Kiffin’s only season (2009), and beaten down in Derek Dooley’s three years (2010-12).

Jones came from Cincinnati for big-time football at Tennessee, which hasn’t played in the SEC championship game since 2007 and hasn’t won it since 1998.

Dobbs has played as big a role as any Vol in the program’s progression under Jones: from 5-7 in 2013 to 7-6 the next year and 9-4 in 2014 and to this season.

“I think (Dobbs) defines what a student-athlete is all about,” Jones pointed out. “You look at what he’s meant to this football program not only on the field, but off the field, and it starts with character. He’s a face in this community. He’s giving of his time.

“You look at the curriculum that he’s involved in, he’s a very good student, and what he’s meant to our football program as the starting quarterback at the University of Tennessee.”

Dobbs’ place in UT quarterback lore hinges on the rest of the season. He won’t reach Peyton Manning or Tee Martin status because he won’t win as many games as Manning or an NCAA championship like Martin did in 1998.

Dobbs had one of his worst games as a Vol in a 24-21 loss at South Carolina on Oct. 29, also one of the worst losses in Jones’ tenure at UT.

That loss caused the Vols to lose control of their SEC East destiny.

Since then, Dobbs and the Vols have regrouped with victories over Tennessee Tech (55-0) two weeks ago and Kentucky (49-36) last Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Yet Tennessee needs to finish strong for the senior class’ legacy.

“We talked about when we recruited them about getting Tennessee football back, and it’s come a long way,” Jones recalled.

“Are we there yet? Have we arrived? Nope. But these individuals have really been the architects to it, and they’ve been through a lot.”

3 match ups to watch

Crockett vs. UT run ‘D’

Missouri’s Damarea Crockett rushed for 154 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries against a Vanderbilt run defense that ranks seventh in the SEC, and the Vols’ rushing defense is coming off one of its worst showings in program history.

Kentucky ran for 443 yards on 55 carries for an average of 8.1 yards per carry against the Vols. It was the third-worst mark for a UT rush defense behind the yardage Alabama piled up in 1986 (457 yards) and in 2013 (444 yards).

For the Wildcats, the rushing output was the second-highest total in program history, 3 yards shy of the record set against Tennessee Tech in 1951.

“It starts with missed tackles,” Jones said of improving the run defense. “We had way too many missed tackles. I think the fundamentals of tackling, block destruction as well. There was a number of times where we fit the gaps correctly. We just weren’t able to get off of blocks, so (it was) fundamentals and details.”

The Vols have allowed an average of 275 rushing yards in SEC games – including 353 yards against Texas A&M and 409 against Alabama – and are 12th in the SEC in rushing defense. Missouri is seventh in the SEC in rushing offense per game (191.0).

Crockett, who’s only started one game, leads the Tigers in rushing with 837 yards (6.5-yard average) and nine rushing touchdowns. Ish Witter, who has started nine games, has rushed for 575 yards and four touchdowns and averages 4.6 yards per carry.

Dobbs vs Missouri ‘D’

Dobbs had a career day against Kentucky, whose defense was slightly worse than the Vols.

Dobbs rushed for a team-high 147 yards and two touchdowns and set UT’s record for touchdown runs by a quarterback. With 27 rushing touchdowns, Dobbs surpassed the record held by Jimmy Streater (1976-79), who had 25.

Dobbs, who threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns against the Wildcats, outgained UT’s top tailback, Alvin Kamara, who rushed for 128 yards on 10 carries after missing the previous two games with a knee injury.

“Dobbs is the best running back on the team,” Kamara joked after the game.

It’s no secret the Vols’ offense is much more effective when Dobbs is making the right reads and running the football, and should have more opportunities with Missouri giving up 225.3 rushing yards per game, which ranks 13th in SEC.

Dobbs is the Vols’ leading rusher this season with 470 yards (4.1-yard average) and has the team-high seven rushing touchdowns. His 45-yard touchdown run was the second-longest run of his career.

Kamara has 441 yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry and five rushing TDs and Kelly three.

Moore/Mason vs. Vols’ secondary

Fortunately, Tennessee’s run defense might get a break Saturday. Missouri, which averages 486.7 yards offense per game, gets 295.7 passing yards per game.

Missouri’s J’Mon Moore and Dimetrios Mason both have more catches than UT’s leading receiver, Josh Malone (35 catches, 648 yards, eight touchdowns), and have more receiving yards than UT’s second-leading receiver, Jauan Jennings (26 catches, 379 yards, five touchdowns).

Moore has 47 catches for 743 yards and eight touchdowns, and Mason has 39 catches for 459 yards and two TDs.

Against Vanderbilt, Moore snapped out of a five-game funk, during which he only surpassed 54 receiving yards once. He had eight catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns, an 82-yarder from Drew Lock in the second quarter and a 4-yarder from Lock in the fourth quarter.

Mason had five catches for 21 yards against Vanderbilt.

“It’s probably as talented a group of wide receivers as we’ve faced the entire year,” Jones said. “They can run vertical. They can get in and out of their breaks. They can take a 5-yard gain and turn it into a 35-yard gain.”

4 things to watch

The scoreboard

Florida’s game at LSU starts at 1 p.m. ET, so Tennessee and its fans might have an idea if there’s a chance of winning the East Division by kickoff at Neyland Stadium.

LSU opened as a 10-point favorite against Florida, and the line was 11 on Monday.

Jones said the Vols will have tunnel vision on their game Saturday, not what’s happening in Baton Rouge.

Athletic Lock

Lock, a 6-4, 205-pound sophomore from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, started the last eight games of the 2015 season and retained the starting job in fall camp over sophomore Marvin Zanders.

Lock completed 22 of 37 passes for 294 yards with no interceptions against Vanderbilt. He leads all SEC quarterbacks in passing yards this season (2,811), but is completing just 54.8 percent of his passes. He’s thrown 21 touchdowns with eight interceptions.

“Drew Lock, he’s an NFL quarterback,” Jones said. “He can make all the throws. You can see he’s becoming more and more comfortable with all their run-pass options.”

As a high school senior, Lock was the No. 1 recruit in Missouri and was rated the sixth-best quarterback in the nation by ESPN.com. He was also a standout basketball player at Lee’s Summit High and had offers to play hoops from Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Wichita State, among other programs.

Lock’s 1,106 passing yards in the Tigers’ first three games this season was a school record, although the Tigers went 1-2 in those games. In the home opener against Eastern Michigan, a 61-21 victory, Lock threw for a career-high 450 yards and tied a school record with five touchdown passes.

Two punters

Tennessee’s Trevor Daniel and Missouri’s Corey Fatony are two of the best in the SEC.

Fatony, a sophomore from Franklin High School, was a freshman All-American last year by Sporting News and USA Today. He’s averaging 44.2 yards per punt this season and has had 23 of his 59 punts downed inside the 20-yard line, has 17 punts of 50 or more yards, and hasn’t had a punt blocked.

Daniel is third in the SEC in punting average (44.8) behind Alabama’s J.K. Scott (48.4) and Florida’s Johnny Townsend (47.3). Daniel has had 23 of his 58 punts downed inside the 20-yard line, has 18 punts for 50-plus yards and hasn’t had a punt blocked this year.

Two rushers

Dobbs and Lock will spend Saturday trying to stay away from defensive ends Derek Barnett of Tennessee and Charles Harris of Missouri.

Barnett is tied for the SEC lead in sacks this season (10) and stands two shy of UT’s career record of 32 held by Reggie White (1980-83).

Barnett’s 30 career sacks is the highest of all active FBS players, and his 16 tackles for loss is tied for fourth in the and tops in the SEC.

When Corey Vereen got a sack last Saturday against Kentucky, Barnett was being triple-teamed.

Harris, has bounced back from a frustrating start to the season and has 7.5 sacks in the last three games against Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. He’s got 8.0 sacks this year – surpassing last year’s total of seven – and has 11 tackles for loss.

Like Barnett, Harris will be NFL Draft eligible in 2017. Both are projected as first-round picks.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.