Heat Really On for Jones Against Arkansas

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

It’s been a long week for Tennessee football coach Butch Jones.

Kickoff can’t come soon enough for Jones and his staff Saturday night when the Vols (2-2, 0-1 SEC) play host to Arkansas (1-3, 0-1) at Neyland Stadium.

Fans have been stewing ever since Aaron Medley’s 55-yard field goal attempt sailed barely wide right as time expired in the Vols’ 28-27 loss to Florida last Saturday in Gainesville.

Actually, some fans were stewing before Medley’s miss extended Florida’s winning streak against UT to 11 games. Those fans might have turned the TV off after UT blew a 13-point lead in the last five minutes and Florida went ahead with 1:26 remaining.

Quarterback Josh Dobbs led the Vols in rushing yards (136), passing yards (83), and receiving yards (58) against Florida.

(Parker Eidson/ Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com)

It was the second fourth quarter meltdown this season for the Vols, who blew a 14-point lead against Oklahoma and lost 31-24 in double overtime.

That loss was bad. Florida was worse.

Jones knows he’s the target of critics. The heat is on for the Arkansas game.

“It’s not about me,” Jones said Monday when asked how he reacts to the criticism. “It’s about our players and our football organization. I am the head football coach, and I am responsible for anything and everything. I would say put it all on my shoulders. I want it all on my shoulders.

“I want to free up our coaching staff to coach. I want to free up our players to play. That is part of the responsibility here. We have been through this, but I see our progress. I am responsible. Put it all on me, so our players can play and our coaches can coach. That’s the responsibility of being the head football coach.”

Arkansas is the start of UT’s toughest month this year. After the Razorbacks, the Vols play host to No. 8 Georgia (Oct. 10) before traveling to No. 13 Alabama (Oct. 24) and Kentucky (Oct. 31).

Jones isn’t looking past Arkansas, and for good reason.

Like the Vols, Arkansas is badly in need of a win. Since opening the season with a victory against UTEP, the Razorbacks have lost to Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M.

Arkansas led Texas A&M 21-13 late in the fourth quarter before losing 28-21 in overtime last Saturday. The Razorbacks were driving for the winning touchdown in regulation, but quarterback Brandon Allen was sacked, fumbled and A&M recovered.

Jones sees some similarities between his team and the Razorbacks.

“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us,” Jones says. “We’re playing a very, very talented Arkansas football team. (They’re) very physical, very big. (They) have the ability to control the clock. … They’re basically in the same situation as we are. They’ve had some gut-wrenching losses where they could’ve won the football game, and it’s a play here, it’s a play there.”

While Arkansas coach Bret Bielema deals with the Hogs’ fan base, Jones is doing the same in Knoxville.

His game coaching and management were a hot topic all week on sports radio.

In the Vols’ final drive against Florida, they ran only four plays before Medley’s field-goal attempt despite having 1 minute, 21 seconds and two timeouts remaining. At least two more plays should have been run.

Jones defends the clock management.

“I thought we did a great job of managing the game and getting it down there and giving us an opportunity,” he explains. “There were some moments with some communication problems from the officiating crew to the coaching staff in terms of clock stoppage.

“There’s a number of times where we thought the clock should have been stopped on first down. I think there was some of that going on, but again, we put ourselves in position to where we had a chance to win the football game. It’s a very difficult kick. We understand that.”

Many UT fans aren’t buying Jones’ confusing explanation of the final series.

Other decisions by Jones were questioned, such as kicking the PAT with 10:19 left for a 27-14 lead instead of going for two and a 28-14 lead, and the play-calling on the Vols’ next-to-last drive, which ended with quarterback Joshua Dobbs running a sweep for a 4-yard loss.

Florida got the ball back at its 41 and moved for the winning touchdown.

Jones also was criticized for kicking a field goal from inside the 1-yard line on the opening drive against Oklahoma, and for having speedy running back Alvin Kamara in the goal line set instead of power runner Jalen Hurd.

Jones was asked if he thinks the coaching staff coached well enough to win the Florida game.

“I do,” he says. “Again, it’s one or two plays. We are two plays, or 10 seconds, away from being 4-0, but we’re 2-2. We can’t let two plays or 10 seconds define who we are.

“We have to continue to work and grind. I thought our coaching staff had a great game plan going in. If you look how we limited (Florida) offensively, if you look at what we did offensively, it just comes down to one or two plays.

“I hurt for the kids because it’s all about them. Players are resilient, and for us, it’s gut wrenching, but we have to move on.

“For the fans, they have a week to dissect the game. (The media) has all week to dissect the game and talk about it. As coaches and players, we have 24 hours and we have to move on because we have a very talented and hungry team coming in here in Arkansas. We have to put all our effort into preparation.”

It better result in a victory, or UT’s season may be headed in the tank.

Matchups to Watch

Hogs Run vs. UT ‘D’: Arkansas will try to control the clock with a physical run game, and it starts with 5-11, 215-pound junior Alex Collins, who’s averaging 125.5 yards per game (5.8 yards per carry) and has four rushing TDs.

Collins was forced to become the Hogs’ feature back when senior Jonathan Williams hurt his foot during a preseason scrimmage and was lost for the regular season. Williams rushed for 12 TDs and 1,190 yards last season, the fourth-most for an SEC running back, while Collins ran for 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns.

“They have one of the premier running backs in the conference, and they’re going to come in here ready to play, just like we’ll be ready to play,” Jones says.

True freshman Rawleigh Williams, who was a redshirt candidate, is Arkansas’ second-leading rusher with 126 yards and one TD and is averaging 3.5 yards per carry. Williams rushed for more than 5,000 yards and set multiple school records at Bishop Lynch High in Dallas.

Arkansas rolled up 232 rushing yards against Texas A&M. Collins ran for 151 yards and a touchdown and Williams 46 yards and a touchdown as the Razorbacks’ had possession for 39 minutes, 28 seconds compared to the Aggies’ 20:32.

UT allowed 109 rushing yards against Florida – 102 by Kelvin Taylor – but 47 of those yards came on one run by Taylor.

Dobbs vs. Arkansas Secondary: This would be a good time for Dobbs and the Vols to have a breakout passing game.

The Razorbacks rank last in the SEC in passing defense (264 yards allowed per game), one spot ahead of the Vols (248.3). They have allowed five TD passes and intercepted three passes, but opposing quarterbacks are completing 71.6 percent of their passes, the highest percentage allowed by any SEC team.

Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen completed 21 of 28 passes for 358 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions last Saturday against Arkansas.

Dobbs is 12th in the SEC in passing yardage per game (139.3) and is completing 58.2 percent of his passes. Dobbs completed only 10 of 17 passes for 83 yards and no touchdowns against Florida, but was clutch late in the game.

Dobbs completed 4 of 5 passes in the fourth quarter and all three of his passes on the final drive to get the Vols into field-goal range; not to mention his 58-yard catch-and-run touchdown play on a pass from receiver Jauan Jennings. Dobbs led the Vols in rushing yards (136), passing yards (83), and receiving yards (58) against Florida.

Allen vs. UT secondary: Fifth-year senior Brandon Allen has thrown for 1,141 yards this season and ranks second in the SEC among QBs in passing yardage per game (285.3).

Allen’s completion percentage (70.1 percent) is second behind only Georgia’s Greyson Lambert (76.5 percent). He’s been the Razorbacks’ starter since 2013, Bielema’s first season as coach.

“I think they have one of the best quarterbacks in the country,” Jones points out. “He’s a three-year starter. He’s managing their offense.”

Against Texas A&M, Allen completed 20 of 25 passes for 225 yards with one TD and one interception.

Florida’s Will Grier threw for 283 yards on 23-of-42 passing against the Vols last week with two TDs and one interception.

Although off target on many of his throws, Grier was big when it counted in the fourth quarter. UT had a glaring breakdown in the secondary on the Gators’ tying touchdown when Antonio Callaway caught a pass from Grier, spun past defenders, and ran for 63-yards.

Five things to watch

1. What’s happened to “Wide Receiver U?” This was supposed to be the season UT’s receivers reminded fans of the glory years of the Vols’ deep passing game.

Instead, the receivers have been the team’s most disappointing unit, although it may not be entirely their fault.

Questions have arisen about Dobbs’ ability to throw the deep ball, or UT’s coaching staff not having confidence in Dobbs to throw it, or the offensive line’s inability to give him time to deliver it.

“We want to be able to throw the ball more down the field,” Jones says. “That’s really a big part of us offensively. I can tell you this: everyone wants to look to the receivers and the quarterback. It takes all 11 individuals working together.

“You know sometimes we have those plays called and we don’t get them off one, way, shape, form or another. It’s not just the offensive line, either. It’s 11 individuals working together as one, but we take great pride in our passing game.”

In the loss to Florida, UT’s wide receivers had only two of the team’s 12 catches. Josh Smith had one for 6 yards and Jauan Jennings one

catch for one yard.Sophomore tight end Ethan Wolf leads the Vols in catches (11) and touchdown catches (two), and is first in yards per catch (11.5) for a receiver with four or more catches.

Starting receivers Josh Malone, Marquez North and Von Pearson didn’t catch a pass against Florida.

Malone is the second-leading receiver (top wideout) with nine catches for 92 yards. The former standout at Station Camp High in Gallatin had 23 catches as a freshman last year.

North (four catches, 38 yards) was fourth in catches last year (30 for 320 yards, four TDs) and Malone was fifth (23 for 231 yards, one TD).

Jennings and Smith are tied for third with seven catches each. Jennings, true freshman from Murfreesboro Blackman High, came to UT as a quarterback and moved to receiver before fall camp. Smith, a sophomore and former Christian Academy of Knoxville standout, was redshirted last year.

Wolf and tailback Alvin Kamara were UT’s leading receivers against Florida with three catches each.

Dobbs has the Vols’ longest pass play of the season on the trick-play reception.

Alton “Pig” Howard, who led the Vols in receiving last year (54 catches for 618 yards), has only one catch for 8 yards this season. Howard missed the Florida game due to injury and missed the season opener against Bowling Green due to team suspension.

2. Tennessee linebackers. Sophomore walk-on Colton Jumper got the start at middle linebacker against Florida – his third of the season – but true freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. continues to be an impact player at the position.

Kirkland, who played at Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis, was tied for second on the team with five tackles against the Gators and spent almost the entire defensive game on the field. Jumper didn’t have a tackle.

Arkansas’ rush game may force the Vols into their base 4-3 defense, which could mean Kirkland Jr. and another true freshman, Austin Smith of Buford (Ga.) High, could see plenty of snaps. Junior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, the SEC’s second-leading tackler, rarely leaves the game when the Vols are on defense.

Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry.

(Razorback Communications)

3. NFL Tight End. Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry is considered one of the nation’s top tight ends and a can’t-miss NFL player.

The 6-foot-5, 253-pound junior was a freshman All-American in 2013 in his first year at Arkansas when he had 28 catches for 409 yards and four TD catches (tied for the team high).

Last season, Henry had 37 catches for 513 yards and two TD catches and was on the All-SEC team.

Henry is Arkansas’ second-leading receiver this year with 17 catches for 206 yards and a touchdown.

“He is best tight end in the country, and he is going to play in the National Football League for a very, very long time,” Jones says. “And they do a great job structurally of getting him the football. He’s one of their playmakers, so we have to make sure he is accounted for in every set, and they do a very good job with different personnel groupings to try to isolate him.”

UT will try to defend a formidable tight end for the second consecutive week.

Florida senior Jake McGee had five catches for 57 yards last Saturday.

4. Neyland Stadium. An announced crowd of 102,136 showed up at Neyland Stadium for the Western Carolina game the week after UT’s loss to Oklahoma.

How many show up for Arkansas?

The Vols need all the help they can get – starting with another boisterous crowd.

UT is 13-4 all-time against Arkansas, and 6-1 against the Razorbacks in Neyland Stadium. The Vols’ last home loss to Arkansas was 25-24 in 1992.

There have been memorable games since then. The teams last played in 2011 when Arkansas won 49-7 in Fayetteville.

UT’s last game in Neyland against the Razorbacks was 2007 when Eric Berry intercepted two passes in the Vols’ 34-13 victory. In 2002 in Neyland, UT beat Arkansas 41-38 in six overtimes, the most in school history.

And in 1998, quarterback Clint Stoerner fumbled away the Razorbacks’ chances with 1:43 left in the Vols’ 28-24 victory in Neyland; UT went on to win the national championship.

5. Vols’ breakout punter. Trevor Daniel won a three-player battle for UT’s starting punter’s job in the preseason, and through four games, has solidified his spot on the depth chart.

Daniel ranks fifth nationally and second in the SEC with a 48.6-yard average.

Against, Florida, Daniel had six punts for a 51.3-yard average with a long punt of 56 yards. It’s the seventh-best average for a UT punter in a single game.

He’s a game-changer and field-flipper with his punts.

Daniel, who played at Dickson County High, was redshirted in 2013 and was on the practice squad in 2014, when Matt Darr was UT’s punter. Darr now punts for the Miami Dolphins.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.