Tennessee football: 3 thoughts as Vols prepare for Florida, start of SEC slate
Tennessee opens its conference slate Saturday with a primetime showdown against No. 11 Florida in The Swamp.
The Vols are 2-1 after walloping Tennessee Tech 59-0 last weekend, but they no longer have another cupcake on their schedule to sort out some kinks until late November — which is concerning for Josh Heupel’s team considering the litany of questions still surrounding this group.
Tennessee is a 3-touchdown underdog against UF, so while an upset in Gainesville is highly unlikely, Saturday night does present the Vols with an opportunity to gauge what’s real — and isn’t — about this football team before more winnable games on the schedule arise the following weeks against Missouri and South Carolina.
Here are 3 thoughts on the Vols as they enter SEC play …
Enough with the pining for QB3
Only in Knoxville could there be boisterous calls — for multiple seasons now — to play the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart.
Heupel has declined to name a starter for Saturday, but it will be Hendon Hooker or Joe Milton.
Both transfers have flashed some ability through 3 weeks, but Milton is still dinged up and his preseason accuracy concerns have not subsided. At all.
Meanwhile, Hooker has also shown a propensity to miss a wide-open receiver downfield, but his ability to extend plays with the legs (more on that in a minute) has been a big boost for a struggling offensive line.
And yet, whether it’s on Twitter, message boards or inside Neyland Stadium, the calls for Harrison Bailey to become QB1 haven’t stopped for nearly 2 seasons.
The former 5-star recruit set all sorts of high school records in Georgia, but that play simply hasn’t translated to the collegiate game — at least not yet. Perhaps one day Bailey will truly get a long leash to show his capabilities outside of practice, but two straight Tennessee staffs now — and no matter what you think of Jeremy Pruitt and Jim Chaney, that context is important here — have evaluated Bailey daily in practice and deemed him to be the No. 3 or No. 4 best option.
That’s just the reality right now. It’s not that hard to grasp.
Moving forward, Hooker should be the guy for the Vols. He’s a more natural runner than Milton, who in a vacuum has a much higher upside but has rarely been able to harness his tantalizing skill-set. Hooker has to take better care of the football (3 turnovers in 2 games), but he can at least “playground his way” to first downs in a manor Milton cannot.
Tennessee’s defensive line has been a pleasant surprise
The Vols don’t have any stars up front, but a veteran group led by super seniors Matthew Butler and Ja’Quain Blakely have been salty defending the run — and that at least gives them a puncher’s chance going up against Dan Mullen, Emory Jones and UF’s run-heavy offense this weekend.
Butler, Blakely and Elijah Simmons consistently have eaten blocks and filled their gaps, allowing a steady stream of blitzing linebackers and safeties to make plays in the hole. Tyler Baron has been the best playmaker of the bunch, leading the way with 4 tackles for loss.
Veteran DL coach Tracy Rocker has done a nice job rotating bodies up front, and he got another useful edge presence in the mix last weekend when Byron Young’s NCAA issues were finally resolved.
Through 3 games, the Vols have 29 tackles for loss — No. 3 in the SEC — and are 1 of just 2 teams in the league yet to yield more than 200 combined yards rushing — ranking No. 2 in the conference allowing just 1.7 yards per rush and just 54 yards per game.
Those mighty stats will be challenged immediately against the Gators though, as they pounded the rock vs. Alabama (averaging more than 6 yards per carry, 240+ for the game) and consistently confused a Crimson Tide front with a steady stream of motion and designed QB runs.
The offensive line is a mess right now
Tennessee’s offensive line has been beset by injuries and poor play. That’s a potential disaster combination heading into a trench-battle with UF’s nasty front.
Center Cooper Mays (ankle) went down in the opener against Bowling Green, causing a domino effect that’s been felt for 2 weeks. The Vols were forced to shuffle various lineups up front — none that have been overly effective.
Heupel hopes to get Mays back Saturday, and that would at least be a big boost going up against Gervon Dexter, Brenton Cox, Zachary Carter and others. Senior right tackle Cade Mays is also hurt but could suit up against UF.
Still, the return of the Mays brothers hardly solves all the problems for Tennessee’s OL.
Jerome Carvin, who has filled in at center with Cooper Mays out, and guards Kingston Harris, Ollie Lane and Javontez Spraggins have generated little to no interior push. Collectively, they’ve been flagged for 8 penalties and surrendered 4 combined sacks, per Pro Football Focus.
Left tackle Darnell Wright, who will have his hands full going up against Cox or Jeremiah Moon, hasn’t faired much better early in 2021, getting called for 4 penalties.
Alabama struggled to run the ball against UF last weekend, so it’s hard to see how UT will have any success on the ground Saturday.
Outside of Hooker freelancing and creating something out of nothing, the Vols simply can’t run the ball right now. In the past 2 games, Jabari Small (2.25 per rush) and Tiyon Evans (2.73 per rush) have combined to average less than 2.5 yards per carry.