It’s easy to point out the fact that Tennessee gave up a school record for rushing yards on Monday night against Georgia Tech – 535 yards.
Attribute it to the Yellow Jackets’ scheme, or a lack of depth in the front seven for the Volunteers. Either way, Tennessee was gashed on the ground.
But the old adage remains true: A win’s a win.
And besides that massive rushing total given up, the Vols actually have a lot to be happy about after knocking off Georgia Tech 42-41 in double overtime.
Besides the “resolve and resiliency” and the “will to win” shown, as coach Butch Jones has made sure to point out, it was the way Tennessee fought back with new faces on the field that was most impressive. The Vols found leadership on Monday night.
The biggest, most pressing issue coming into the 2017 football season was figuring out how to replace the production lost from a season ago.
Dual-threat, three-year starting quarterback Joshua Dobbs, top receiver Josh Malone and running back Alvin Kamara all moved on to the NFL. Besides that, running back Jalen Hurd transferred after playing the majority of last season. And even more damaging, current No. 1 receiver Jauan Jennings went out with an apparent season-ending injury in the first half vs. Tech.
Defensively, Tennessee lost its all-time sack leader, Derek Barnett, in addition to complementary defensive ends Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis. Top linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and standout, three-year starting corner Cam Sutton also moved on to the NFL. Just before this season, Tennessee announced its No. 1 linebacker, Darrin Kirkland Jr., would be out for the year.
Feel free to criticize Jones for underachieving with a boatload of talent last season. That criticism is warranted. But the one area no one should criticize Jones for is his ability to recruit.
Jones has had a Top 25 recruiting class every year he has been at Tennessee, according to 247 Sports’ Team Composite Rankings.
And it was evidenced on Monday that Jones has recruited some solid players to replace the talent missing from last year.
Tennessee was faced with adversity on Monday down 28-14 in the fourth quarter, and it had hardly shown any signs of life with what at times appeared to be a totally depleted roster. But new faces began to step up in new places, and they eventually led to a Tennessee win.
Imagine being the guy tasked with replacing Kamara and Hurd in Tennessee’s backfield. Kelly had 98 carries last season, so it’s not like he came into this game totally unproven. But he was still seen as the No. 3 back for the biggest part of last season. This is his first full season in a starting role, and he started off tremendously. Kelly ran for 128 yards on 19 carries, 6.7 yards per carry. Even more impressive were his four touchdowns. Without his two scores in overtime, there’s no way Tennessee wins the game.
Callaway wasn’t even seen as Tennessee’s No. 3 option last year. In fact, he only caught one pass as a freshman. But most Tennessee fans knew this guy at least had the talent to play in the SEC. Callaway stepped up big time when Jennings went down, catching four balls for 115 yards and two touchdowns, including a 50-yard score in the fourth quarter. That should help answer some of the questions surrounding Tennessee’s wide receiver depth.
The first-year starting quarterback finished 20-of-37 with 221 passing yards and two touchdowns. The most impressive part about Dormady’s performance was the throws he made in the second half to keep Tennessee in the game. He struggled in the first half, but once he shook off those initial jitters, Dormady looked like a top-level SEC quarterback. His 54 percent completion rate doesn’t appear to be all that great but his receivers dropped six passes. Without that, Dormady would have been closer to completing about two-thirds of his passes.
Daniel Bituli/Colton Jumper
When Kirkland went down, Tennessee fans wondered who the Vols’ leading tacklers would be — and if Tennessee would have any answer for the Georgia Tech running game. Concerning the latter part, the Vols did not have an answer. But the linebackers played well, particularly in the first half. The biggest issue was the defensive line getting blown off the ball. Bituli finished with a whopping 23 tackles and Jumper had 18. That’s a pretty good day of bringing down ballcarriers, even if many of the tackles came eight yards downfield.
Darrell Taylor was an animal on the defensive line for the Vols. Trevor Daniel boomed a 70-yard punt and averaged 47 yards on a total of six punts. Evan Berry affected the field position game with kick returns. And how about walk-on defensive tackle Paul Bain blocking Georgia Tech’s potential game-winning field goal?
Not to pump out too much sunshine or anything, but Tennessee fans shouldn’t be totally discouraged by what they saw on Monday night.