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VOL. 9 | NO. 30 | Saturday, July 23, 2016

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Dave Link

Dobbs’ Health is Priority No. 1 on Road to Being No. 1

By Dave Link

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Senior quarterback Josh Dobbs holds the key to Tennessee’s success this year as the only experienced QB on the roster. His understudy, Quinten Dormady, played sparingly last year as a freshman.

(Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com)

Tennessee’s football team had nine players earn All-SEC preseason honors and got the nod as favorite to win the East Division as SEC Media Days concluded last week in Hoover, Alabama.

All signs point to the Vols making a return to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta for the first time since 2007, with their two biggest games are at Neyland Stadium this year against Florida on Sept. 24 and Alabama on Oct. 15.

The Vols have 19 starters returning, one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks (Joshua Dobbs), one of the SEC’s best rushing duos (Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara), and first-team All-SEC preseason players at each level of the defense (end Derek Barnett, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, cornerback Cameron Sutton).

What could go wrong?

For starters, what if Dobbs gets hurt? Can sophomore Quinten Dormady run the Vols’ offense as effectively as Dobbs? It’s doubtful.

Also, can the Vols finally beat Florida? The Gators have won 11 consecutive games in the series and have beaten UT teams that had superior talent during the streak. Like last year. The Gators are still talking smack about the streak. Mental edge: Florida.

And can the Vols survive the four-game stretch with no open date against Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama? Florida was picked second and Georgia third in the SEC East by media, and Texas A&M was fourth in the rugged West Division.

In search of a second opinion, I asked veteran print and radio journalist Jimmy Hyams those questions and more.

Few media members are better informed than Hyams about UT football. He is sports director at Sports Radio WNML Radio in Knoxville, co-hosts the state’s top-rated talk show, and has covered UT football since 1985 when he started with the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Hyams also covers SEC football for Lindy’s Sports magazine and picked the Vols to win the East Division and Alabama to win the West. Here’s what he has to say:

When was the last time UT’s football team had expectations this high going into a season?

“There are two different things that come to mind. One is I remember great anticipation for Tennessee going into 2004 because they were going with two freshmen quarterbacks.

“They were going with Brent Schaeffer and Eric Ainge, and I know the fan base was extremely excited about that and looking forward to it. There was great anticipation for that season, and a lot of it had to do with going with a couple of young guys at quarterback. That was a big deal.

“So what happened then was in 2005 there was great expectation for a different reason, and that’s because the team was coming off a win in the Cotton Bowl over Texas A&M (38-7 for a 10-3 record in 2004). They were preseason No. 3 that year, so a lot of fans were excited about that to see what would happen.

“I think they were excited for ’04 for the freshmen quarterbacks, and they were very excited the next year because they thought they had a chance to contend for a national championship, but I don’t think there’s been this much excitement since then.’’ (UT went 5-6 in 2005).

I don’t see any weaknesses in UT’s offense. Do you? Except maybe Dobbs doesn’t throw a good deep ball.

“That’s it. I think Tennessee’s offense is very strong all the way around. I don’t think they really have any weakness except that I don’t think they throw the long ball that well, and I think at times, Dobbs can be a little bit inaccurate, but I think their offense should be one of the three best in the SEC. There’s a good chance they’ll lead the league in rushing, and last year, even though they were a little bit erratic throwing the ball, they still finished first in the SEC in third-down conversions. That’s pretty good.’’

What happens if Dobbs gets hurt early? Can the Vols win with Dormady, the backup right now?

“If Dobbs gets hurt, I’m not sure that Dormady could do it. I think that Dormady throws a better ball, but in the heat of the moment and him being told ‘You’re the guy,’ I’m not so sure he could do it. And this offense isn’t catered around throwing the ball a lot.

“In my opinion, if you [had] put Justin Worley [whose UT career ended in 2014] there at quarterback, they would have struggled a little bit because I think they were so geared to running the football. In this offense, if your quarterback does not run the ball effectively, the offense will not be effective.

“You saw some of that even last year when they played North Texas. They went to their offense where Dobbs was not going to run it. He was a little bit banged up. They tried to protect him, and that offense wasn’t very good at all. They didn’t run it that well. They didn’t throw it well. They didn’t do hardly anything well in that game because the quarterback was not a threat to run it, so North Texas did not honor him, and the offensive line’s not good enough to just line up and pound people.

“So you take away the running threat of the quarterback, I think it hurts this offense immensely, and I don’t think that Dormady would be nearly as effective at quarterback as Dobbs.’’

Health also could be an issue for defensive lineman Shy Tuttle, who suffered a broken fibula against Georgia last year early in his freshman season.

(Parker Eidson/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com)

Depth at linebacker is a concern. How big a concern, and who’s up next if Reeves-Maybin gets hurt (or has trouble coming back from his spring injury)?

“That’s the only position on defense where I don’t think they have depth is at linebacker. I think that they have depth in the secondary. I think they have pretty good depth on the defensive line, but at linebacker, they have two proven guys in Reeves-Maybin and (Darrin) Kirkland, and after that, I’m just not so sure. I think the biggest defensive concern is depth at linebacker.’’

I’ve heard UT’s secondary could be its best in a long time despite having two new starting safeties (Rashaan Gaulden, Todd Kelly Jr.). What do you think of the secondary?

“I think it will be the best in a long time. I like their depth, I like their ability, I like their experience, I like their leadership. I think Willie Martinez does a nice job coaching that group. The other thing that will help them too is I don’t think they face that many good passing teams, so their pass defense efficiency numbers are going to be really good because they won’t face that many teams that can throw the ball.’’

The offense improved in Mike DeBord’s first year as offensive coordinator in 2015. With DeBord having a year of experience working with Dobbs, could UT’s offense be even better this year?

“I think the second half of the year DeBord got better. I think he learned a little bit more about Dobbs. He learned a little bit more about how to utilize Alvin Kamara, so I thought the second half of the year, and I know the competition went down a little bit, but I thought the second half of the year he did a really good job of mixing things up and making that a really efficient offense.

“He’d been out of football for several years, but other than Bowling Green, which wasn’t very good on defense, I thought there were times they struggled a little bit offensively, but I thought he got better the second half of the year, and I would expect the offense to be even better, and again, I think they’ll have one of the top three offenses in the SEC.’’

What impact will first-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop have? It looks to me the Vols have the guys who fit his blitzing style.

“I think they’ll be very effective. I think what you’re looking at is you’ve got a number of very good pass rushers, whether it’s Barnett, whether it’s (Corey) Vereen, I think you’ll see them getting a better push up the middle with (Shy) Tuttle, provided he’s healthy (Tuttle is 50-75 percent from injury going into fall camp), and (Kahlil) McKenzie, and I think (Jonathan) Kongbo is going to help them.

Kyle Phillips will help. Darrell Taylor will help. I think they’ve got a lot of guys who could really help them in pass rushing situations. I do think their sack numbers will be up.

I think they will have more leads in games, which is going to create more passing opportunities for the defense to get after the quarterback. So I think their sack numbers are going to go up, and I think their defense is going to be really good.

“The big key on defense is whether or not they’re going to be able to stop teams when they build a lead. What are they going to do in the fourth quarter? It killed them in a couple of games last year. Now, are they going to be able to deal with that this year? I think so.

“But Shoop has promised that he’s going to much more aggressive and not rushing three people on third and 14 or fourth and 14, so I think he’s going to do a better job of helping the defense close games in the fourth quarter, which was the big issue they had last year.’’

This appears to be the year UT ends the losing streak to Florida, but are you confident picking the Vols in that game?

“I am, and I’m very confident, but they may have to beat them by double digits because if it’s close, I’m wondering if something crazy might happen. But I think they will (beat Florida). They’re better than Florida in just about every area. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to beat ’em here and put ’em away.

“If they’ve got a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter in Knoxville, they should not lose that ballgame, so I’m very confident they’ll beat Florida this year.’’

What do the Vols need to finish in the four-game stretch of Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, and Alabama?

“If Tennessee goes 2-2, they could still win the SEC, but that stretch is going to define the season. If they go 3-1 in that stretch, I think they’re going 11-1 because I don’t think anybody else will beat ’em. I think that’s a huge stretch for ’em.

“It is, in my opinion, the hardest stretch that any team in the SEC faces this year without an open date. That’s four in a row. Nobody, in my opinion, plays four teams that tough in a row without an open date.

How much pressure is Butch Jones under to take the next step: win the East and get to the SEC Championship Game?

“I think there’s a lot of pressure on Tennessee and Butch Jones to win the East. Beyond that, I don’t know that I’d say pressure to win the SEC but certainly the East division, and if you don’t win it this year, people are going to wonder, ‘Well when are you going to do it? Isn’t this the year?’

“And it should be the year, so there’s some pressure with that, and the odd thing is, what if you lose to Florida and Georgia and beat Alabama?

“Well, I think people would love to beat Alabama, but if you don’t win the East Division and you don’t play for the SEC championship, I think Tennessee fans are going to be disappointed.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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