KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The bye week for Tennessee came at the perfect time after the Volunteers suffered a wrath of injuries during their opening seven-game stretch.
Now Team 120 can look ahead to another strong finish, one it hopes ends with a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game.
The Vols spent the bye week making adjustments, moving players into different positions, attempting to find answers to their myriad injury issues.
“I think that’s the great advantage of having a bye week right now, we can take a look at some different things,” defensive line coach Steve Stripling said heading off of the bye week. “Obviously, our concern for some is to get well, and our concern for some is to get reps and get better.”
The loss to defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie for the season with a torn pectoral muscle and Danny O’Brien being dismissed from the team before the Alabama game placed the Vols in a thin position along the defensive line. That means some of the younger guys will have to perform earlier than anticipated.
The same can be said for the linebacker position, which was decimated even before the wins against Florida and Georgia. But there have been some pleasant surprises, too. Colton Jumper has been a prime example.
“It happens,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said of the injuries. “That’s part of the game of football. You play long enough, somebody is going to get hurt. Unfortunately this year there has been a multitude of injuries and the next guy’s up. DK (Darrin Kirkland Jr.) was down at one time. Hopefully this week we can get him back. (Jalen) Reeves-Maybin is out for the season. Quart’e Sapp. Injuries happen and you just have to get guys ready at the position, to make sure that they go out and they are prepared.
“Colton Jumper has played the whole season. Out of 500-and-something reps on the season, he has played in 400-and-something of them. So really, he has been in there the whole season.
“As far as getting our defensive line and guys in position to play, he has done a tremendous job. We had Cortez McDowell come in for a couple of games and he finished off a couple of games when Jalen Reeves-Maybin went down. Then he goes down and Elliott Berry steps up.
“So guys understand in the room that there are high expectations and regardless if you are the third, fourth or fifth guy, when your number is called, you have got to be prepared. Everybody is going into that role now, just like in anything.
“If you are Gavin Bryant, if you are Daniel Bituli, you know at any moment you can be called out on the field. We just try to make sure that every man is prepared and make sure that he takes a really good approach in his role because his role might come up at any time.”
If the Vols want to seize the opportunity of being in position of winning the SEC East, they will have to do so by winning the remainder SEC games against South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt, while Florida will need to lose one game against Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina, or LSU.
Team 120 will need to place the injuries behind them and focus on the task at hand with the current players in their current positions.
Saturday night in Columbia will be a measuring stick in where the team stands adjusting to injuries in a competitive way heading down the final stretch of the regular season.