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VOL. 7 | NO. 45 | Saturday, November 1, 2014

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Dave Link

Dobbs Makes Strong Case for Vols Starting QB Job

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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KNOXVILLE – University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones faces a big question this week about his starting quarterback for Saturday night’s game at South Carolina.

Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) throws to a receiver in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Alabama, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014, in Knoxville, Tenn.

(AP Photo/Wade Payne)

 

Will it be sophomore Josh Dobbs, whose impressive debut off the bench in last Saturday’s 34-20 loss to No. 4-ranked Alabama gave UT a dual-threat QB?

Or will it be sophomore Nathan Peterman, who started the Alabama game and played two listless series before giving way to Dobbs?

Or will it be senior Justin Worley, who hurt his shoulder in the Oct. 18 game against Ole Miss, couldn’t play against Alabama and may not be ready for South Carolina, anyway?

Yep, Jones has a big question at quarterback. Perhaps even a quarterback controversy. And no matter who starts, you’ve got to wonder what UT’s record (3-5, 0-4 SEC) would be if Dobbs had played earlier this year.

Peterman hasn’t been up to SEC snuff in two crucial appearances, relieving Worley against Georgia and Alabama.

Dobbs might have burned a redshirt year against Alabama, but he also lit a fire in the Vols’ offense. He threw two touchdown passes as the Vols rallied from a 27-0 deficit and got within 27-17 in the third quarter. He completed 19 of 32 passes for 192 yards.

Sure, Dobbs threw an interception and lost a fumble, but he also gained 100 rushing yards on 19 carries. His 75 net yards was the most for a UT quarterback since Tee Martin’s 81 yards against Syracuse in the 1998 season opener.

Yet when UT began practicing for South Carolina (4-4, 2-4) this week, Jones was unwilling to name a starter.

“Josh will continue to get first-team reps, but I also have to guard against crowning individuals, and I know everyone’s excited and they’re looking for positive things, and there’s a lot of positive things, but that’s one game,” Jones says.

“When you watch the videotape, Josh would be the first to tell you there’s a number of plays we left out there, a number of opportunities we left out there. So now, how can he transition from Game 1 to Game 2 of him playing, [with] and the fundamentals, the fine details, the command presence, which we expect from our quarterback?”

Worley has all that, but he’s a reluctant runner in an offense that needs a running threat at quarterback. Worley has rushed for 97 yards on 45 carries, which doesn’t include 202 yards of sacks/lost yardage plays for a net of minus 105 rushing yards.

Worley took a beating in the first seven games as UT gave up 30 sacks, most in the SEC, and he might be better served to sit the South Carolina and have the Nov. 8 open date to heal his shoulder.

“If he’s back, that doesn’t assure him that he’s going to start, as well,” Jones says of Worley. “It’s what individuals give us the best opportunity to win.”

UT’s vulnerable offensive line is no secret, and Dobbs’ run threat and ability to scramble out of the pocket can give it some relief.

Jones may take that into consideration.

“Obviously some of the things we did with Josh alleviated some of the stress and pressure of the offensive line just because of the dual threat, some different gap schemes, but those have always been in our offense,” Jones says.

“I think it’s a combination of the scheme of being able to run the quarterback a little bit, and Nate can do the same thing when he’s in the game.”

Dobbs has spent the season a deep No. 3 in the Vols’ depth chart behind Worley and Peterman, and UT’s redshirt plans became clearer each week Dobbs didn’t play.

So why was Dobbs able to come in against one of the nation’s top teams and be so effective?

One theory: he’s better in games than practice.

Jones doesn’t buy that theory.

“You don’t like to say that as a coach, but he did some very good things in the game,” Jones says. “That’s not to say he hasn’t performed at times well in practice.

“What we’re looking for Josh is just a very high level of consistency in performance. Make the routine throws. When we got the slant down there (an incomplete pass in the second quarter), that’s got to be a touchdown. We can’t kick a field goal.

“That’s all part of the maturation of a quarterback, playing winning football. But he did some very good things. He defeated tight coverage at times. I thought he was poised.

“He’s going in there playing the University of Alabama, top four football team in the country, and I thought he gained some confidence from last year’s opportunities.”

Jones has never liked the idea of a two-quarterback system, nor has he employed one.

Maybe this is his year.

With four games left, UT needs three wins to get bowl eligible. If the Vols lose to South Carolina, they must go 3-0 down the stretch against Kentucky, Missouri, and Vanderbilt.

“I haven’t in the past (used two quarterbacks) just because I like to have a quarterback get into the rhythm of the game and get a feel for it,” Jones says.

“But right now, we’re scratching and clawing for every victory we can, and whatever it takes to win football games right now, that’s what we’re looking to do.”

Key matchups
Vols’ QB vs. Gamecocks’ ‘D’: Regardless of the quarterback, the Vols should be able to move the ball against a South Carolina team that’s tied for last in the SEC with Vanderbilt in points allowed per game (32.8).

Furthermore, South Carolina is last in rushing defense, giving up 208.4 yards per game and a whopping 5.8 yards per carry. Its opponents have scored 20 rushing touchdowns. That’s six more rushing TDs than any other SEC team has allowed.

The Gamecocks are 12th in the SEC in pass defense, giving up 229.1 yards per game and 10 touchdowns with four interceptions.

Auburn exposed South Carolina’s defense to the max in last Saturday’s 42-35 loss at Auburn. The Tigers rushed for 395 yards, averaged 8.4 yards per carry, and finished with 551 total yards. Auburn scored touchdowns on six drives before South Carolina got a stop.

Look for the Vols to run and throw.

“You have to have great balance on offense,” Jones says. “You can’t be one dimensional. It’s easy for defenses to take one dimensional football teams away.”

Thompson vs. Vols’ Secondary: For all the bad the defense, South Carolina’s offense has been pretty good at times.

Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson spent the past three seasons as the backup quarterback – one year behind Stephen Garcia, then two behind Connor Shaw – and now he’s making the most of his chance.

Thompson is second in the SEC in passing efficiency (142.8), completing 60.8 percent of his passes for 2,241 yards with 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

“(He is) poised, can do a number of things, is very accurate, has great experience, makes all the throws, and is very, very consistent,” Jones says. “He’s a leader of that offense on that football team.”

UT, eighth in the SEC in total defense (343.8 yards per game), is third in passing defense (181.3) and ninth in rushing defense (162.5).

The Vols have given up eight touchdown passes and have nine interceptions.

South Carolina sophomore receiver Pharoh Cooper was a freshman All-American in 2013 and has lived up to that billing this year.

He’s third in the SEC in receiving yards (553) and has 41 catches (13.8 yards per catch) and six touchdowns.

The Gamecocks get offensive balance via junior tailback Mike Davis (5-foot-9, 223 pounds), who is fifth in the SEC in rushing with 750 yards, a 5.3-yard average, and eight touchdowns.

“It’s going to be a great challenge,” Jones says. “They have a very, very good quarterback, very, very good wideouts, one of the best offensive lines in the SEC, and a very, very dynamic running back. [Davis is] big, physical, can get the tough yards, but also has the capabilities to score anywhere on the field.”

UT’s O-Line vs. Gamecocks’ rush: The Vols’ reshuffled their offensive line for Alabama due to injuries, and only gave up two sacks – which matched a season low after giving up 18 sacks in the previous three games.

Right tackle Coleman Thomas missed the Alabama game with an ankle sprain, and left guard Marcus Jackson was also out with an injury.

Jacob Gilliam played right tackle, while Kyler Kerbyson moved from left tackle to left guard and redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick played left tackle.

South Carolina has only eight sacks this season, but that doesn’t mean the Vols’ makeshift line can take a break.

“They did some good things in moving forward, but for us to go where we need to go, again, they are a work in progress,” Jones says.

“We were able to do some things different schematically to take some pressure off of them, so the defensive front just couldn’t rush the passer or run off the field. That still needs to develop, and we need to continue to have better play there (on the offensive line).”

Notable Notes
The Old Ball Coach: When South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier talks, UT fans listen. Why wouldn’t they?

Spurrier’s jabs at the Vols are legendary. Most memorable was when Spurrier, coaching at Florida, chirped about the Vols missing the Sugar Bowl and going to the second-tier Citrus Bowl: “You can’t spell Citrus without U-T,” Spurrier said.

And on Peyton Manning, former Vol and current Denver Broncos QB: “I know why Peyton came back for his senior year. He wanted to be a three-time star of the Citrus Bowl.”

Last summer, Spurrier was being interviewed about SEC’s permanent rivals, and said: “Alabama and Tennessee like each other. I don’t know why Tennessee would keep liking them though.” (Alabama has won eight consecutive games in the series.)

Compared to those, Spurrier’s comments about UT during a teleconference last Sunday were mild.

“We’ll regroup, look forward to Tennessee this week, Eastern Division rival,” Spurrier said. “I would say they’re one of our four big rivals with Georgia, Florida and Clemson. Hopefully we can get ready to play our best.

“They beat us last year in Knoxville. They’ve got a good team. Their record isn’t real good, about like ours, but they’re playing with a lot of energy and a lot of effort.”

Spurrier, who grew up in Johnson City, is 14-8 against the Vols. Since he took over as South Carolina’s coach in 2005, the Gamecocks have won five of the past nine games against UT. Prior to Spurrier’s hiring at South Carolina, the Gamecocks had just seven victories all-time against UT.

Last Year’s Game: UT snapped a 19-game losing streak against ranked teams with the 23-21 victory over No. 11-ranked South Carolina at Neyland Stadium.

No play was bigger than Worley’s 39-yard pass to Marquez North to the Gamecocks’ 36-yard line on a third-and-10 situation. North made a one-handed catch on the play, and the Vols then moved to the 1-yard line for Michael Palardy’s game-winning 19-yard field goal.

Like many of the Vols, sophomore cornerback Cameron Sutton will be making his first trip to Williams-Brice Stadium.

“We expect, just with any game with it being a home game (for South Carolina) and the crowd with their atmosphere in their backyard, they’re definitely going to come out with a lot of intensity,” Sutton says.

“As far as confidence, it’s a new team, so they bring new guys, new things that they do differently from throughout the years. We can’t rely on last year. Like I said, we’re going into somebody else’s backyard where a lot of guys on our team haven’t been before.”

Before last year’s game against South Carolina, UT’s previous victory over a ranked team also was against the Gamecocks. The Vols’ beat the No. 21 Gamecocks 31-13 on Oct. 31, 2009, when former UT coach Lane Kiffin let his team don black jerseys for the Halloween game.

Gilliam’s Knee: Gilliam, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on from Farragut High School, played his second game after suffering a torn ACL in the Aug. 31 season opener against Utah State.

Gilliam returned for the Oct. 18 game against Ole Miss.

“No worse for the wear,” Jones says of Gilliam’s knee. “[He] did an admirable job. Just can’t say enough about him, his competitive grit.

“He did some very good things. He played tough. He played physical, but the knee held up very well. That was a very challenging defensive front, too, very strong, very physical.”

Gilliam, Kerbyson and Kendrick give UT a Knoxville-flavored offensive line. Kerbyson, a junior, played at Knoxville Catholic High School, and Kendrick played at Christian Academy of Knoxville.

Smith May Redshirt: Sophomore wide receiver Josh Smith will miss his sixth consecutive game since suffering a high ankle sprain Sept. 13 at Oklahoma.

UT might request a medical redshirt for Smith, who played with Kendrick at CAK.

“It could be if he’s not 100 percent by the stretch run,” Jones said of Smith’s redshirt chances. “I wouldn’t ever want to take somebody’s year away if he’s not healthy because we’re going to need (Smith) for the future of our program. He means so much to our program. … That’s an option we have [to redshirt him]”

Carolina Ties: UT has three players from South Carolina. Worley played at Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, sophomore defensive lineman Jaylen Miller played at Gaffney High School and senior offensive lineman Marques Pair is from Sumter High School.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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