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VOL. 41 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 06, 2017

Vols' midseason assessments show a team falling behind

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Sophomore running back Carlin Fils-aime on one of his three carries against Georgia. He has 74 total yards on the year with most of the carries going to junior John Kelly.

-- Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Tennessee’s football players are on fall break this weekend during the open date.

You’ve got to wonder how many players fifth-year UT coach Butch Jones will get back after the break.

Fallout from last Saturday’s 41-0 loss to No. 5 Georgia is massive. Fans were leaving Neyland Stadium by halftime with the Vols trailing 24-0. Jones took a beating from fans on social media and sports talk radio all week.

There is great speculation the Georgia loss was the end of the Butch Jones era at Tennessee.

While the Vols take the weekend off, free to go home to see family, Jones and his staff hit the recruiting trail. Good luck, guys.

What do they tell recruits after the worst home loss since 1905 when Vanderbilt won 45-0 in Knoxville? You can’t guarantee early playing time if you’re not still coaching.

Jones likes the timing of the open date as the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) attempt to regroup before the Oct. 14 game against South Carolina (3-2, 1-2) at Neyland Stadium.

“We’re going to find out who the true leaders are, and we’re going to find out who the true competitors are,” Jones says. “The bye week is coming at the right time. We’re 3-2 with a lot of football left to be played, and we’re going to find out what we’re made of each and every day moving forward.”

At least one Vol won’t be back for the South Carolina game. Backup offensive guard Venzell Boulware of Union City, Georgia, quit the team Monday and announced he would transfer. Boulware, a redshirt sophomore who started against UMass this year and started three games in 2016, wasn’t listed as a participant against Georgia.

And the Vols lost one commitment, wide receiver Jatavious Harris of Milledgeville, Georgia, also on Monday.

With UT’s football program at another crossroads, the Ledger gives its fall break report card on this year’s team.

Quarterback D

Fans are seeing just how good Joshua Dobbs – now with the Pittsburgh Steelers – was the past two seasons because UT’s quarterback situation is a mess.

Junior Quinten Dormady started his fifth game against Georgia, and it was his worst of the year. He completed 5-of-16 passes for 64 yards with two interceptions.

Dormady was intercepted on the first play of the game by Tyrique McGhee, leading to a Georgia field goal. Dormady was 3-of-12 for 11 yards with both picks in the first half.

Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano entered late in the third quarter for Dormady when the Vols trailed 31-0. The late entry is a sign Jones and his staff have little confidence in Guarantano.

Dormady is completing 55.4 percent of his passes (76-of-137), averaging 185 passing yards per game, with six touchdowns and six interceptions. Guarantano is completing 50 percent (12 of 24), averaging 18 yards per game, with one touchdown and no interceptions.

Jones said after the Georgia loss the starting quarterback’s job and all other starting positions will be evaluated during the bye week.

Running backs C

This group would get a higher grade if junior John Kelly was getting some help.

Kelly was the SEC’s leading rusher going into the Georgia game with 450 yards and six touchdowns, but was held to 44 net yards on 16 carries. He also caught four passes for 47 yards, but lost a fumble at Georgia’s 33-yard line after a 44-yard run.

Sophomore Carlin Fils-aime gained 16 yards on three carries against Georgia; freshman Ty Chandler had 7 yards on two carries; and freshman Tim Jordan had one carry for 7 yards.

Georgia was able to capitalize on the Vols’ lack of offensive playmakers and focus on Kelly.

For the season, Kelly has 494 yards and is averaging 5.1 yards per carry; Fils-aime has 74 yards and two touchdowns with a 6.7-yard average; Chandler 71 yards with a 3.7-yard average; and Jordan 29 yards and a 5.8-yard average.

Kelly gets an ‘A’ for being the Vols’ workhorse, but his cohorts (UT’S other backs) haven’t been enough of a factor.

Offensive line D

UT’s offensive line took a blow when starting tackle Chance Hall went out with a knee injury and had surgery in preseason. The shuffling of players on the offensive front has further hampered the unit’s continuity.

The Vols gave up a whopping 12 tackles for loss in the 17-13 win over UMass and another eight against Georgia, giving opponents 25 TFLs for the season. UT has allowed five sacks this season, including three in the loss to Georgia.

Tennessee entered the Georgia game ranked 76th in the nation and ninth in the SEC in rushing yards per game (156.5). After rushing for 62 yards and averaging 2.1 yards per carry against Georgia, the Vols’ will drop further in the rankings.

Senior starting center Jashon Robertson of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy missed the UMass game due to injury and returned against Georgia. Although he’s the Vols’ most versatile lineman – he’s started 39 career games at left guard, right guard and center – Robertson caused a fumble when his snap in the second quarter went off his rear end and was recovered by Georgia.

It killed momentum after Justin Martin’s interception gave UT the ball at Georgia’s 28-yard line trailing 10-0.

True freshman Trey Smith of University School of Jackson has started all five games at right guard, and junior Jack Jones of Murfreesboro’s Oakland High started the first three games at left guard. Jones was replaced by Boulware against UMass and by Brett Kendrick against Georgia, and now has 10 career starts.

Kendrick started the opener against Georgia Tech at left tackle and started the next three games at right tackle.

Redshirt sophomore Drew Richmond has started the last four games at left tackle and has 10 career starts.

Kendrick, a fifth-year senior from Christian Academy of Knoxville, is UT’s most experienced lineman with 25 career starts at both tackle spots.

Wide receivers/tight ends D

Tennessee lost its top receiver, junior Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High, to injury in the opener against Georgia Tech and lost freshman Jacquez Jones in preseason to injury.

No player has emerged as UT’s go-to receiver in Jennings’ absence.

Sophomore Marquez Callaway had four catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns in the opener, but since has added only four more catches for 81 yards and one touchdown. Against Georgia, Callaway had no catches.

Sophomore Brandon Johnson is UT’s only receiver to start all five games and leads the Vols’ receivers with 18 catches for 205 yards and a touchdown. (Kelly leads the Vols with 22 catches for 229 yards).

Fifth-year senior Josh Smith of Christian Academy of Knoxville and sophomore Tyler Byrd of Naples (Florida) High haven’t been much of a factor at slot receiver. Smith has three catches for 20 yards, and Byrd two catches for 21 yards and a touchdown.

Senior tight end Ethan Wolf has 10 catches (third on team) for 90 yards (fourth) with one touchdown catch.

Tennessee’s receivers and tight ends have dropped at least 10 passes – a very conservative estimate – and combined with sub-par quarterback play have helped cause the offensive train wreck.

Defensive line C-

Tennessee was 117th in the nation and 14th in the SEC in rush defense (allowing 242.3 yards per game) before the game against Georgia, which ran for 294 yards and four touchdowns (two by quarterback Jake Fromm).

The Vols’ front held its own against Georgia for one quarter but wore down due to little rotation – caused by the Bulldogs’ up-tempo offense – and too much time spent on the field.

Fifth-year senior tackle Kendal Vickers has been the highlight of UT’s defensive line. He’s started all five games and has 25 tackles (seventh on team) and three sacks (second on team). He had nine tackles and a sack against Georgia.

Junior Kahlil McKenzie has started all five games at the other tackle and was almost a non-factor against Georgia with one tackle. He has 18 tackles, two tackles for loss, and one sack this year.

Fourth-year junior Jonathan Kongbo and redshirt sophomore Darrell Taylor have started all five games at right and left end, respectively. Kongbo has 10 tackles, one sack, and one tackle for loss. Taylor, who was ejected from the Georgia game for unsportsmanlike conduct (fighting), has 20 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and one sack.

Junior end Kyle Phillips of Nashville Hillsboro High has shown flashes this year (nine tackles, two tackles for loss), but there’s been little help behind him from Shy Tuttle (five tackles in three games), Alexis Johnson (five tackles in five games) and Quay Picou (four tackles in five games).

Linebackers C-

Injuries hit this group hard – starting with a season-ending knee injury to projected starting middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. in August. Kirkland started 10 games as a freshman in 2015 and last year had six starts and played in eight games.

Also out is senior weak-side linebacker Cortez McDowell with a wrist injury sustained against Florida and Austin Smith with a knee injury sustained late in preseason. McDowell started the first three games this year, had four starts last year, and has played in 38 games at UT; Smith played strong-side linebacker in 2015 as a true freshman and was redshirted last year.

Redshirt sophomore Quart’e Sapp moved into the starting role for McDowell against UMass and Georgia and is sixth on the team in tackles (27) and has one sack. Sapp had 10 tackles against Georgia.

Senior Colton Jumper, a former walk-on from Chattanooga Baylor, started the first two games and the past two games at middle linebacker.

He’s UT’s third-leading tackler (33) with team-highs in tackles for loss (7.5) and sacks (4.5).

Sophomore Daniel Bituli of Nashville Christian School is the Vols’ leading tackler (46), starting the first two games at strong-side linebacker in the 4-3 defense and the next two at middle linebacker in place of Jumper.

Senior Elliott Berry and redshirt junior Dillon Bates have made limited impact as backups. Berry has six tackles in five games and Bates has three tackles in five games.

Secondary C

Senior strong safety Todd Kelly Jr., the former Knoxville Webb star and UT’s leading tackler last year, was a backup the first two games this year, but had an MRI before the Florida game that revealed a probable season-ending knee injury.

He underwent surgery on Tuesday and plans to return in 2018.

Sophomore Nigel Warrior has started all five games at strong safety and is the Vols’ second-leading tackler (36).

Junior Micah Abernathy has started every game at free safety and has 28 tackles, fifth on the team. Senior Justin Martin has been the starter all year at “field” cornerback with senior Emmanuel Moseley starting the past four games at “boundary” cornerback.

Senior nickel back Rashaan Gaulden is fourth on the team in tackles (30) and probably the best player in the secondary.

UT entered the Georgia game 11th in the nation and fourth in the SEC in passing defense, allowing 140.5 yards per game. Georgia freshman Fromm threw for 84 yards on 7-of-15 passing as the Bulldogs ran through the Vols.

Special teams C

Senior Trevor Daniel has the SEC’s second-best punting average (47.3 yards), but for some reason has gone to rugby style punts and often outkicks coverage. Georgia averaged 11.2 yards on four punt returns.

Daniel’s 41.4 net yardage on 29 punts ranks fifth in the SEC.

Tennessee kickers Trevor Daniel and Brent Cimaglia are a combined 3-of-7 on field-goal attempts. Daniel, a senior from Dickson County, is 2-of-3 with a long kick of 40.

Cimaglia, a freshman from Page High in Franklin, is 1-of-4 with a 51-yarder against Florida.

Tennessee leads the SEC in kickoff return average (28.3 yards on 10 punts).

Coaching D-

There was much ado about the wholesale changes Jones made to his coaching staff in the offseason, and the jury is still out on all the moves.

Tennessee needed a rally and overtime to beat Georgia Tech 42-41. After rolling undermanned Indiana State 42-7 in the second game, the Vols lost to Florida 26-20 on a last-second pass play. Then the Vols crept past UMass 17-13. And then the Georgia game.

Jones heralded his team as being bigger and stronger this year, thanks to the offseason hiring of strength and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson. It would be a stretch at this stage to say UT is bigger and stronger than last year. A real stretch.

With seven games and a possible bowl to play, Jones and his staff need a big turnaround to remain at Tennessee.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.