VOL. 130 | NO. 157 | Thursday, August 13, 2015
Last season, Tennessee went into November with a 3-5 record and without a win in the Southeastern Conference. The Butch Jones rebuilding program was still taking baby steps.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones at a Tuesday, Aug. 11, practice. After a 7-6 finish in 2014 that saw the Vols win four of their last five when Joshua Dobbs became the starting quarterback, expectations have risen.
(Amy Smotherman Burgess/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
But when an injury to senior Justin Worley opened the door for Joshua Dobbs to become the starting quarterback, baby steps became long strides for positive yards and more wins than losses.
What followed Dobbs’ insertion as the starter wasn’t just a 4-1 finish that included beating Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl to finish 7-6; Dobbs injected energy into a lackluster offense and the carryover has the Volunteers ranked 25th in ESPN’s preseason poll and the team becoming the trendy pick to emerge from the SEC East.
“In the past, I would say we were underachievers,” said senior defensive lineman/linebacker Curt Maggitt. “Last season, not talking record-wise, but just the way the season went I think we overachieved. A lot of adversity, a lot of things going on during the season, injuries, etc., going up and down.
“So we overachieved with having a young team and maturing and learning how to win some games.”
Dobbs was the Most Valuable Player in UT’s 45-28 victory over Iowa after rushing for two touchdowns and passing for another. It was the Volunteers’ first bowl victory since Phillip Fulmer’s last winning team capped the 2007 season by beating Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl.
“This year’s a little bit different,” said Jones, who is in his third season as head coach at UT. “You want expectations to be exceptionally high. But anything worthwhile really does take time to build. We’re not just building a team, we’re building a program.”
Yet, the immediate future offers legitimate hope for taking another stride. Maybe not all the way to the top of the East Division and a place in the SEC title game in Atlanta, but another step that would have the Vols winning eight or nine games this season.
Dobbs, a 6-3, 212-pound junior, is the first reason for optimism. Before he became the starter, UT averaged just 4.39 yards per play. After Dobbs took over the Vols jumped up to 5.53 yards per play. He accounted for 17 touchdowns and his eight rushing TDs led the team. As a runner, he averaged 4.5 yards per carry and finished with 469 rushing yards, second only to Jalen Hurd’s 899 yards as a freshman. Sophomore Alvin Kamara is expected to team with Hurd in the backfield for a dynamic one-two punch.
The offense returns four starters on the line and also has several legitimate playmakers in the receiving corps, including Pig Howard, who led the team with 54 catches for 618 yards. Marquez North, who had 38 catches as a true freshman in 2013, will be looking to rebound from a shoulder injury.
Dobbs, however, is the difference-maker and Jones has emphasized that he wants him to be a “CEO quarterback.”
An aerospace engineering major, Dobbs seems suited to the role. Mike DeBord, who was head coach at Central Michigan during Jones’ days there as assistant, joins the staff as offensive coordinator.
“A CEO is the person who runs the company, is involved in everything in the company,” said Dobbs, who in the offseason had an internship at Pratt & Whitney, an aerospace manufacturer. “You have to motivate people within the company to succeed, so that’s my job as the quarterback. I’m the CEO of the team. I embrace that. My job is to motivate and lead so we have the best team possible, the best product possible.”
The defense will include on the two-deep eight players who started last season. Tennessee’s last four opponents in 2014 failed to crack 30 points, but overall the Vols allowed 4.71 points per scoring opportunity – the worst rate in the SEC.
The defensive front should be formidable, however, as Maggitt registered 11 sacks and defensive end Derek Barnett set Tennessee records for most tackles for loss (20.5) and sacks (10.0) by a true freshman.
Tennessee opens the season on Saturday, Sept. 5 vs. Bowling Green in a game that will be played Nashville. The following Saturday night Oklahoma, No. 19 in ESPN’s preseason Top 25, comes to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.
Maggitt says it’s a perfect way to start.
“If we look ahead and focus on the Georgia, Florida and South Carolina games before we even play Bowling Green and Oklahoma, then we’re looking at 0-2 possibly.”