Tennessee football: 5 notable stats from the Vols' first 2 games
Coming off a wild 41-34 home loss to Pitt, Tennessee is 1-1 after 2 games to kickstart the Josh Heupel era.
The Vols will host in-state FCS program Tennessee Tech on Saturday before opening SEC play with a primetime showdown at Florida the last weekend of September.
As many predicted this offseason, Heupel has brought some orange and white fireworks to Knoxville, showcasing an offensive scheme that can score points even with a clunky roster. Meanwhile, the Vols’ depleted defense has been both aggressive (lots of TFLs via 5 and 6-man run blitzes) and bad (0 takeaways, a leaky pass defense).
So after 2 weeks, here are 5 notable stats to start Tennessee’s 2021 season:
1 completion over 20 yards
As we’ve outlined in this space many times this offseason, Heupel’s scheme is predicated on connecting on vertical shots down the sidelines.
Line up receivers with super wide splits, put corners on an island and go. The Vols have a slew of speedy receivers who have proven capable of getting behind the defense, but through 2 games, they don’t seem to have a quarterback who can accurately connect on the deep shots.
Joe Milton, whom Heupel chose as his QB1 to start the season, has a hose for an arm, but the ball regularly seems to hit the grass rather than end up in a teammate’s arms. On Saturday, Milton drew multiple groans from the crowd after missing several wide open targets for potential touchdowns. Per Pro Football Focus, the former Michigan transfer is just 1-of-10 on throws over 20 yards this season — and the single completion was a nifty touchdown catch by Cedric Tillman late in the opener against Bowling Green.
Milton was injured on a sack-fumble against Pitt, opening up another quarterback competition after former Va. Tech transfer Hendon Hooker came on and led a few scoring drives. But Hooker was no better at throwing the ball vertically — something he also struggled with in Blacksburg — going 0-for-2 with an awful interception to seal Pitt’s win.
Heupel is dialing up some big plays, but right now, the Vols have a pair of gunslingers who can’t throw it in the ocean. That has to change, quickly.
‘Special’ special teams
Tennessee’s “3rd unit” has been very good over the first 2 games, ranking No. 3 in ESPN analyst’s Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings.
Coordinator Mike Ekler is a head-butting nut, but he’s assembled an all-around impressive unit.
Tennessee has a solid kicker in USC transfer Chase McGrath (3-of-3 on field goals, perfect on extra points), a good punter in Paxton Brooks (47.1 yard average, 2nd-best in the SEC), a scary returner in Velus Jones (averaging nearly 30 yards per kickoff return) and strong coverage units. The Vols blocked a punt that led to a touchdown Saturday against Pitt.
For a team that’s going to play a lot of tossup games, Ekler’s unit could prove to be the difference against the likes of South Carolina, Missouri, Vandy, etc.
-5 turnover margin
Tennessee has committed 5 turnovers to start the season, 2nd-most in the SEC. That’s obviously bad, but just as concerning, it hasn’t forced a single takeaway in the 2 games.
The Vols have coughed up the football 4 times via fumbles.
UT’s -5 turnover margin is the worst in college football — as in tied with Rice and UTEP for No. 128 in FBS. The Vols are 1 of just 9 schools in the nation not to force a turnover in 2021.
8 sacks allowed
The Vols entered the season actually liking their depth along the offensive line, and while a few guys are dinged up, the more concerning aspect of the group is its performance.
In particular, Tennessee’s interior OL is a mess, with center Cooper Mays injuring his ankle in the opener against Bowling Green and guards Jerome Carvin, Javontez Spraggins and Kingston Harris all struggling.
Through 2 games, the Vols have allowed 8 sacks — most in the SEC (and No. 118 nationally) — and committed 5 holding penalties.
Interior pass protection must improve, but it doesn’t stop there. Tennessee ran all over Bowling Green in Week 1, but it couldn’t generate any interior push against Pitt. Tailbacks Jabari Small and Jaylen Wright combined to average just 1.8 yards per rush on 19 carries Saturday.
There is at least a potential early-season solution here, as the Vols could opt to move right tackle Cade Mays inside, where the former 5-star recruit has always been better, and insert Jeremiah Crawford or Dayne Davis into the starting lineup at tackle.
89.5 penalty yards per game
The Vols haven’t shown themselves to be disciplined to start Heupel’s tenure on Rocky Top.
They’re averaging 9 penalties a game, good for 89.5 yards — 2nd-worst in the conference and 3rd-most among all Power 5 schools. Penalties were never really an issue during Jeremy Pruitt’s 3 seasons as the head coach (averaged around 50 yards per game), but the Vols can’t seem to get out of their own way early in 2021.
Early in the second quarter against Pitt, Tennessee went from 1st-and-goal inside the 5-yard line to 3rd-and-goal at the 22 following a false start, an unnecessary roughness flag and offensive pass interference. The Vols had to settle for a 48-yard field goal.
The concern here is this has been a trend under Heupel as a head coach. UCF was among the most penalized teams in the nation the past few seasons, ranking No. 118 in yards per game in 2020 (74.8) and No. 126 (73.2) in 2019.