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Front Page - Friday, October 13, 2017

Reeling Vols 0-5 against Carolina’s Muschamp

Darrell Taylor has been suspended from the team indefinitely after report surfaced he and Trey Smith were involved in a fight. It’s the latest chapter in what has become a long, disappointing season for the Vols. - Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

Fans are fuming. Players are fighting. Butch Jones is coaching for his job.

The Tennessee football coach is in dire need of a good showing when the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) play host to South Carolina (4-2, 2-2) on Saturday Neyland Stadium (noon, ESPN).

Jones, in his fifth season with the Vols, might have the hottest seat in America after the 41-0 loss to No. 4 Georgia (6-0, 3-0) at Neyland Stadium.

National media fired off on Jones during the Vols’ turbulent days after the Georgia loss and the open date last Saturday.

ESPN and SEC Network analyst Paul Finebaum said last Saturday morning on ESPN’s SportsCenter Jones might be fired if the Vols have another no-show against South Carolina.

“I think they have the pink slip in Knoxville in pencil,” Finebaum said. “I don’t think Butch Jones can afford a loss to South Carolina next week, with Alabama the following week (Oct. 21 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.) If he loses at home to South Carolina with another pathetic performance, I think he is done.”

Lee Corso, one of the ESPN College GameDay crew, went a step further later last Saturday morning.

“I think Butch Jones is gone,” Corso said. “You can lose, but don’t lose at home. Don’t be embarrassed at home. I think he’s gone, no question about it.”

Also on the GameDay set were Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard. Herbstreit cautioned against making a move too swiftly and referred to the mess Jones inherited after Lane Kiffin’s one year (2009) as UT’s coach followed by three years (2010-12) with Derek Dooley as coach.

“It’s not always wins or losses,” Herbstreit noted. “I think it’s about culture and direction. That’s more important than evaluating where you are with wins and losses. They haven’t really mattered since ’01.”

However, Howard was quick to respond: “It seems like he’s losing his team.”

Corso then said: “You can lose games, but when you lose your team, you’re gone.”

They may have a point.

Jones suspended starting defensive end Darrell Taylor indefinitely on Monday after a report surfaced he and starting offensive guard Trey Smith were involved in a fight during practice last Thursday.

WNML’s Jimmy Hyams tweeted a source telling him “Taylor kicked OL Trey Smith’s face at practice during 1-minute drill Thursday, leading to Smith needing stitches.”

Taylor already was suspended for the first half against South Carolina as a result of his ejection for unsportsmanlike conduct for a scuffle against Georgia.

“There has been no timetable set on his return,” Jones said Monday at his weekly press conference. “He will have certain stipulations, requirements that must be met. There are multiple factors that led to this decision, and that will be my only statement at this point in time regarding Darrell.”

The Taylor-Smith fight was UT’s second fight reported in two-plus weeks. Backup defensive tackle Shy Tuttle and starting safety Nigel Warrior reportedly went at it during a practice before the UMass game. Warrior played against UMass, but Tuttle did not.

Jones was asked Monday where his team is mentally and in its unity coming off losses to Florida and Georgia and the suspension of Taylor.

“You know, I see these individuals every single day,” Jones pointed out. “I’m around them every day, and the locker room is strong. The team is strong, and we’ve had a lot of individuals step up and emerge as leaders as the bye week has continued to progress.

“Like I told them, we have to learn from our mistakes. You have to learn from the past, but you’ve got to let the past go now, and I think sometimes the growth and maturation of individual players and of a football team, you start thinking about last week, two weeks ago.

“We can’t get that back. The only day we have is today. That’s really been our messaging, is getting back to being 1-0. Just win the day. But from terms of being around our players, they’re as strong and they’re as committed as they’ve ever been, and I see it every day, and that’s what leads me to believe we’re going to be OK.

“I mean, I see it every single day, and there’s a lot of individuals that take great pride in being part of Tennessee football and understanding what it entails. But I think with a lot of the older players, we’ve been here before. We’ve been through this, and so the only way you go about it is you put your head down and continue to work every day.”

The Vols should have their work cut out Saturday.

South Carolina, which opened the season with a 35-28 win over No. 20 North Carolina State (5-1) in Charlotte, is coming off a 48-22 win against Arkansas last Saturday in Columbia.

It was a bounce-back game for the Gamecocks after losing the previous week 24-17 to Texas A&M, which erased a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit. The Gamecocks’ other loss was to Kentucky, 23-13.

And then there’s the coaching factor. How will Jones fare against second-year South Carolina coach Will Muschamp?

Muschamp is 5-0 in his career as a head coach against Tennessee, including a 24-21 win last year in Columbia.

Muschamp was 4-0 against Tennessee while head coach at Florida from 2011-14. After getting fired at Florida, Muschamp spent the 2015 season as defensive coordinator at Auburn. He was also defensive coordinator at LSU (2002-04), Auburn (2006-07) and Texas (2008-10).

“In terms of South Carolina, a very, very, very good football team,” Jones acknowledged. “They’re going to be coming in here with a lot of confidence, and when you look at their football team, they force you to execute in all three phases. They’re plus-seven in the turnover margin. As we all know, they really scored four times on defense last week (against Arkansas). One was taken off the board.”

UT’s offense can’t afford those blunders. Not with Jones coaching for his job.

Matchups to watch

Bentley vs. Vols Secondary

Sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley started seven games last year and has solidified his job as the starter this year for the Gamecocks.

Bentley, whose father, Bobby, is South Carolina’s running backs coach, is third in the SEC in passing yards per game (242.7) and fourth in TD passes (nine). Against the Razorbacks, Bentley completed 16-of-31 passes for 199 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He’s completing 60.6 percent of his passes this season with just four interceptions.

Two of Bentley’s interceptions came in the loss to Kentucky. Bentley completed 16 consecutive passes against the Wildcats and finished with 304 yards on 24-of-36 passing.

Georgia’s Jake Fromm threw for 81 yards and a touchdown on 7-of-17 passing against Tennessee, while the Bulldogs rushed for 294 yards. The Vols are allowing 129.2 passing yards per game, which ranks first in the SEC and third nationally among FBS programs.

Kelly vs. Gamecocks’ Front 7

Tennessee’s run game led by junior John Kelly got stuffed for 62 net yards against Georgia; Kelly rushed for 44 net yards on 16 carries, an average of 2.8 yards per carry. He led the SEC in rushing yards (450) going into the Georgia game.

The Vols are averaging 137.6 rushing yards per game, 11th in the SEC and 93rd nationally.

South Carolina had one of its best games versus the run against Arkansas, which gained 106 net yards and averaged 3.3 yards on 32 carries.

The Gamecocks were 10th in the SEC in rush defense (153.6 allowed per game) going into the Arkansas game. They gave up 178 rushing yards in a 31-13 victory over Missouri; 184 rushing yards the next week against Kentucky; and 237 rushing yards in a 24-17 loss at Texas A&M.

Tennessee needs to establish the run against South Carolina to take the pressure off UT quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.

UT QBs vs. Gamecocks’ secondary

This isn’t just a monster game for Jones. It’s also a huge game for Guarantano, his first start as a Vol.

Dormady, the starter for the first five games, is coming off a horrid showing against Georgia – 5-of-16 passing for 64 yards and two interceptions.

Guarantano entered late in the third quarter and was 6-of-7 passing for 16 yards.

Now Guarantano will get the start against South Carolina after Jones said Monday the quarterback situation would be evaluated during practice the week of practice.

The Gamecocks’ pass defense has been vulnerable. It gave up 415 passing yards in the opener against North Carolina State and 359 passing yards against Missouri the next week.

South Carolina was 11th in the SEC and 97th nationally in pass defense going into the Arkansas game.

The Razorbacks’ Austin Allen and Cole Kelly combined for 224 passing yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-37 passing.

South Carolina returned two interceptions for touchdowns – a 34-yarder by linebacker Skai Moore and a 45-yarder by safety Keisean Nixon.

Tennessee is 10th in the SEC and 91st nationally in passing offense, averaging 195.8 yards per game.


Leadership rep?

Jones came up with another doozy of a phrase during Monday’s press conference when he talked about a “leadership rep.”

It might not draw the attention of Jones’ “Champions of Life” term he coined last year, but “leadership rep” caused a stir on social media when UT’s coach addressed how the reps would be split between Dormady and Guarantano.

“Like I told our quarterbacks, ‘You don’t have to get a physical rep to get a rep.’ You can get a leadership rep by having all the wideouts stand around you and going over your progression and going over what you’re thinking,” Jones explained.

“So, there’s a lot of repetitions that can be incurred throughout the course of practice. It may not be a physical rep, but it could be a mental rep and a leadership rep, and as we all know, you need every kind of rep to be able to perform at a high level.”

Columnist Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweeted: “The more I think about it, this might be the dumbest quote ever by a coach. Even a desperate coach. Even a desperate Tennessee coach.”

Columnist Joe Rexrode of the Tennessean tweeted: “I screamed at my oldest son the other day because he still hadn’t done the dishes. That’s a leadership rep.”

No Deebo

The Gamecocks lost their top playmaker when junior receiver Deebo Samuel suffered a broken bone in his leg in the loss to Kentucky, South Carolina’s third game of the season.

Samuel led South Carolina in receiving last year (59 catches, 783 yards) and was off to another big season before the injury. He returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown in season opener against North Carolina State and finished the game with five catches for 83 yards and two TD catches.

Samuel also returned a kickoff 97 yards the second game against Missouri and had five catches for 45 yards and one TD catch against the Tigers.

Before suffering the injury against Kentucky, Samuel had five catches for 122 yards, including a 68-yard TD catch on the game’s first play from scrimmage.

Sophomore Bryan Edwards is South Carolina’s leading receiver (27 catches, 357 yards, one TD).

Muschamp announced Sunday night during his teleconference backup tight end K.C. Crosby suffered a fractured fibula against Arkansas.

“The same injury as Deebo had,” Muschamp added. “He just got rolled up on right there, the-non-weight-bearing bone. He’ll have surgery Monday or Tuesday. He played extremely well (against Arkansas). Had a huge fourth-down conversion in the game, but blocked well and did some nice things. I just hurt for him, so it’s frustrating. Other than that, we’re fine.”

Baseball, no more

South Carolina tight end Hayden Hurst was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 17th round of the 2012 MLB Draft and spent two seasons, 2013 and ’14, as a pitcher/first baseman one of the organization’s rookie-league team.

Now a 24-year-old junior, Hurst is South Carolina’s second-leading receiver (19 catches, 297 yards, two touchdowns) behind Edwards and ahead of Samuel (15 catches, 250 yards, three TDs).

Last year, Hurst posted the best season ever for a South Carolina tight end with 48 catches for 616 yards. He was selected a permanent team captain in 2016, becoming the first sophomore in school history to earn that distinction.

Vols offensive woes

Where do the Vols rank offensively among the nation’s FBS and other SEC programs? Not very high.

UT is 98th nationally and 13th (next-to-last) in the SEC in scoring offense (24.2 yards per game); 110th nationally and 13th in the SEC in total offense (333.4 yards per game); and 99th and 13th in the SEC in yards per play (5.19).

UT’s quarterbacks have a 112.64 passing efficiency rating (112th FBS, 13th SEC). The Vols are 36.6 percent on third-down conversions at 26-of-71 (87th FBS, 12th SEC); have allowed 33 tackles for loss (tie-80th FBS, t-10th SEC); and have 16 plays of 20-plus yards (t-120th FBS, 14th SEC).

Tight series

Tennessee and South Carolina have split the last 10 games of the series, which the Vols lead 25-8-2 overall.

Last year, the Gamecocks handed the Vols their third consecutive SEC loss (following losses to Texas A&M and Alabama), all but knocking them out of contention for the SEC East title.

Joshua Dobbs had his worst game of the year against the Gamecocks, completing 12-of-26 passes for 161 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Kelly rushed for 94 yards. Bentley made his second start as a freshman and completed 15-of-20 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns.

Tennessee won the previous three games: 27-24, 45-42 and 23-21. Prior to UT’s three-game win streak, South Carolina won the previous three: 38-35, 14-3 and 38-24.

Tennessee ties

South Carolina has three former UT assistants on its coaching staff: assistant head coach-defense/defensive line coach Lance Thompson, tight ends coach Pat Washington and co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper.

Each is in his second season after being hired by Muschamp.

Thompson was an assistant at UT from 2009-11, the first two years as linebackers coach and 2011 as defensive line coach. Washington was Tennessee’s wide receivers coach from 1995-2005. Roper was UT’s running backs coach from 2006-07.

UT running backs coach Robert Gillespie served the same job at South Carolina from 2006-08 under Steve Spurrier, who resigned on Oct. 12, 2015.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.