Midway through 2016, are Vols better or worse than we expected?
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Vols have reached their halfway point of the 2016 season with a bye week coming after seven games.
It’s been a demanding start, and record-wise, the Vols are where I expected them to be: 5-2.
But nobody could have predicted how banged up they’d be.
Injuries have decimated the starting lineup: The Vols are missing four of their five starting offensive linemen, three three defensive tackles, two linebackers and two cornerbacks. Also, Danny O’Brien and Preston Williams no longer are part of the team.
Monday defensive lineman Kahlil McKenzie (pectoral muscle injury, out for the season) and offensive lineman Jack Jones (hand injury, could be back for South Carolina) joined an already lengthy list of injured Vols.
The injured Vols are as follows:
Defense: CB Cam Sutton (broken ankle); LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder); LB Darrin Krikland Jr. (ankle); LB Cortez McDowell (unknown); LB Quart’e Sapp (knee); CB Malik Foreman (unknown); DT Kendall Vickers (unknown); DT Kahlil McKenzie (upper body); S Micah Abbernathy (hamstring); CB Malik Foreman (unknown); DT Alexis Johnson (unknown); DE Austin Smith (shoulder).
Offense: LG Jashon Robertson (leg); C Dylan Wiesman (head); LT Brett Kendrick (leg); RT Chance Hall (unknown); RG Jack Jones (hand).
No longer Vols: DT Danny O’Brien (dismissed); WR Preston Williams (transferring).
Nevertheless, Tennessee still has a chance to represent the SEC East and play for the SEC championship Dec. 3 in Atlanta. But the Vols will more than likely need to win out and Florida will need to at least lose one of the following games against Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina and LSU.
Both are possible, so the season’s goal – and preseason SEC media days predictions – are still in sight in being SEC East favorites.
But Tennessee will need to get better and healthier to achieve their goals.
Better? Let’s say the offense has been different, certainly clutch, and usually effective enough.
Tennessee in general and Jalen Hurd in particular ran the ball much better last year, but Joshua Dobbs already has thrown 14 TD passes, one shy of matching last year’s total.
Malone has been a pleasant surprise and Jauan Jennings has been a revelation.
Tennessee’s scoring average is down this year, but Alabama skewed the average. Total yards are down, too.
So, statistically, based on the key pieces returning from last season, it’s fair to say the offense hasn’t played as well as we thought.
Turnovers have been devastating. The Vols already have 17 and they’re fortunate it’s not a lot more. Team 120 has fumbled the ball 21 times, losing eight.
But give the offense credit: They’ve made winning plays, time and again, most notably Jennings’ catch (above) to beat Georgia, and that’s a huge improvement from last year.
Bob Shoop has bailed out the offensive woes early-on in games so far this season. Shoop’s defense has been a trademark for adjustments in every game, including the Alabama game. The problem with the Alabama game, was that the offense did not provide anything to compliment the defensive adjustments and stops in the first half.
This was the case in other games too, but luckily for the Vols’ case, the offense was able to get going and kept the defense off the field to stay fresh.
Derek Barnett is playing like a player of the year candidate. He’s tied for second in the SEC with 6.0 sacks.
The defense has six interceptions on the year to go along with nine fumble recoveries — and that’s without All-SEC types like Reeves-Maybin and Sutton.
It’s done so while changing starting lineups repeatedly due to injuries, an unfortunate trend that looks like it will continue into the second half of the season.
Freshman Tyler Byrd has been a steady surprise. The talented wide receiver committed to Tennessee in somewhat of a package deal with running back Carlin Fils-Aime. Byrd has provided timely plays during the first seven games, reeling in 10 catches for 120 yards. His progress up the depth chart likely prompted Williams’ decision to leave the program.
Freshman defensive back Baylen Buchanan has played in every game. Buchanan replaced Sutton when the senior captain exited the Ohio game due to injury. Buchanan posted career highs of five tackles (four solo) and one pass breakup. He has 17 total tackles (14 solo) and one pass break-up this season.
Josh Malone has been the biggest surprise on the offense in 2016, in the sense of maximizing his potential. Malone has finally put all facets of his game together and has been a factor in the offense. The junior wide receiver has 22 catches for 402 yards and five touchdowns. Malone will look to continue to be a play-maker.
What can you say about Dobbs? He’s the heart and soul of the offense and he has proven that in every game. When he is a factor with his arm and his legs as a 50/50 player, that’s what makes the offense go, and that is why Tennessee has victories over Florida and Georgia.
For the season, Dobbs is 121-207, throwing for 1,525 yards, and 14 touchdowns. The senior quarterback also has rushed for 472 yards (293 NET) and has scored five touchdowns.
Injuries have impacted Hurd, who is averaging a career-low 3.82 yards per carry and has scored just two touchdowns.
We expected UT to get Alvin Kamara more involved, and that certainly has been the case. He has rushed for 313 yards, added 260 receiving and leads the Vols with six touchdowns.
Relative to last season, there still seems to be a lack of an offensive identity in their approach. A full four quarters without mistakes has yet to be seen, and that can be a promising sign if the Vols can put it together down the stretch during the final four remaining SEC games.
The Vols have their base identity on offense, and it seems that it will not change at mid-season. For what it’s worth, Tennessee will face defensive-minded head coaches in their four remaining SEC games: Will Muschamp, Barry Odom, Mark Stoops and Derek Mason.
Tennessee is clearly the better team than each, but injuries have wiped out a lot of its wiggle room.
The offense could benefit with a little more creativity, a little less predictability. Against Alabama, the Vols ran it 15 times on 21 first-down plays before Dobbs was replaced. That’s not enough to keep a defense guessing.
Creativity can also help cause getting around some areas that may still be affected by the injury-bug after the bye week, but Tennessee will need to work on their offensive identity down-the-stretch to win games they will be favored in.