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VOL. 131 | NO. 216 | Friday, October 28, 2016

Vols Prepare for ‘Grind’ of Weaker Foes

DAVE LINK Knoxville Sports Correspondent

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Tennessee begins the easy part of its football schedule Saturday, Oct. 29, at 7:15 p.m. (ESPN2) against South Carolina in Columbia. Just don’t tell UT coach Butch Jones this is the easy part of the schedule.

Sophomore John Kelly is seen here warming up before the Alabama game. Kelly should see more carries against South Carolina this week in Alvin Kamara’s absence.

(Photograph by Jerry Denham)

No. 18-ranked Tennessee (5-2, 2-2 SEC) opened as a 13.5-point favorite against South Carolina (3-4, 1-4) and will be favored the rest of the season against Tennessee Tech (3-5), Kentucky (4-3, 3-2), Missouri (2-5, 0-3) and Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-3).

Again, don’t tell Jones this stretch is easier than the first seven games – including the four SEC games against Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama before last Saturday’s open date.

“I really believe this five-week stretch is going to be more of a grind than the seven-week stretch that we just had,” Jones says.

“The great thing is our kids have been through it. You never know what it’s like until you’ve been through it, and they’re preparing, and it starts with South Carolina, which will be a great challenge. But the bye week and the rest came at the appropriate time.”

Why would the last five weeks be a greater challenge than the first seven weeks – the last being a 49-10 loss to No. 1 Alabama two weeks ago at Neyland Stadium?

“First of all, we’re in a position where we haven’t been in – that everybody circles this game, and they’re going to judge their programs on how well they play against Tennessee, and just like we do,” Jones explains.

“There’s some defining games throughout the course of the season that you look towards. That’s football. That’s the way football is, and there’s a responsibility that comes along with that.

“Also, I think we’re playing teams that are gaining great momentum. Some of them have new coaches, so now kind of being a new coach is over with. They understand their systems. I think they’re playing much more confidently with it.”

Jones makes a good point: Each of Tennessee’s last four league opponents would like nothing better than to spoil its hopes for an SEC East championship.

However, Tennessee’s last four SEC opponents have a combined record of 13-16, and they are a combined 5-12 in the SEC. Tennessee Tech (3-5) is an FBS team and is 3-3 in the Ohio Valley Conference.

The Vols have a chance to win the SEC East by winning out, but need Florida (5-1, 3-1) to lose one of its last four league games against either Georgia (4-3, 2-3), Arkansas (5-3, 1-3), South Carolina, or LSU (5-2, 3-1).

The Vols have a chance to win the SEC East by winning out, but need Florida (5-1, 3-1) to lose one of its last three league games against either Georgia (4-3, 2-3), Arkansas (5-3, 1-3) or South Carolina.

UT fans will be watching closely Saturday afternoon when Florida plays Georgia in Jacksonville.

Jones says he won’t be watching.

“Not paying attention at all,” Jones said. “All of our focus has to be on a very, very good South Carolina football team, and working to play our best game.

“We have not played our best football game yet. We’ve not played a complete football game. In terms of all three units, this is going to be a complimentary football game, so all of our focus is on South Carolina.”

South Carolina, however, isn’t what it was under former coach Steve Spurrier.

The Gamecocks played in nine bowl games with Spurrier in charge from 2005 to 2014. Spurrier, the former Florida coach, resigned amid the 2015 season and missed the five-game losing streak that left South Carolina with a 3-9 record.

To replace Spurrier this year, South Carolina hired former Florida coach Will Muschamp, who was fired with two games left in the 2014 season. He was 28-21 at Florida, 17-15 in the SEC, and 4-0 against Tennessee.

Muschamp, the defensive coordinator at Auburn last year, got off to a big start with South Carolina when it beat Vanderbilt, 13-10, in the season opener in Nashville.

It’s been a struggle since.

The Gamecocks lost four of their next five games (the win was 20-15 against East Carolina) and they’re coming off a 34-28 victory over UMass (1-7).

Jones, however, doesn’t see the easy part of the schedule starting Saturday.

“South Carolina is a really good football team,” Jones said. “All you have to do is look at them defensively and their statistics speak for themselves. Offensively they’re explosive. They do a great job of distributing the football. They can create big plays. They don’t turn the football over offensively. It’s going to be a challenge.”

3 matchups to watch

Vols run vs. Gamecocks ‘D’. Tennessee will be without junior running back Alvin Kamara against South Carolina.

Kamara, who suffered a knee injury against Alabama, is the Vols’ second leading rusher (313 yards, 4.9 average) and is tied for the team-high in catches (22) for 260 yards. He has three rushing touchdowns and three TD catches and is the Vols’ top punt returner (18 returns for 10.2-yard average).

“He won’t be available this week, but everything that’s come back, right now we do anticipate (Kamara) being back in a couple of weeks, so that’s very, very encouraging,” Jones pointed out.

“I know he’s upbeat and positive. Now how does the body heal? But as of right now he does not need surgery, and we’re anticipating him being back in the next week or two and that’s very encouraging for us.”

Tennessee is 10th in the SEC in rushing yards per game (169.6) after being held to 32 yards on 32 carries against Alabama.

South Carolina is 10th in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game (211.1).

With Kamara out, sophomore John Kelly will get an increase in carries behind leading rusher Jalen Hurd (438 yards), former Hendersonville Beech star.

Kelly rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries against Texas A&M when Hurd was out with an injury.

Jones said freshman Carlin Fils-Aime likely will get an increase in carries while Kamara is out.

“Carlin’s going to have to play reps,” Jones noted. “He’s going to have to play reps. He’s going to have to play and we’re going to need him. He’s going through that maturation process, that constancy of performance that all freshmen go through of understanding the intensity it takes to perform at this level day in and day out.”

Samuel vs. Vols’ secondary. Problems with the Gamecocks’ offense were widespread through the first half of the season, and a primary one was the absence of wide receiver Deebo Samuel.

Samuel suffered a hamstring injury in the second play of the second game, a 27-14 loss to Mississippi State, missed all of the next three games, and was limited against Georgia.

Against UMass, Samuel had eight catches for 108 yards and had two carries for 31 yards. He’s got 16 catches for 262 yards this season.

South Carolina already was limited with big-play potential entering this season – especially with the departure of All-SEC receiver Pharoh Cooper – and Samuel’s injury left the offense even more depleted.

Now that he’s back, Samuel should have the attention of Tennessee’s secondary, which has given up its share of big plays.

The Vols are sixth in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 207.7 yards per game, while the Gamecocks are sixth in passing yards per game at 210.6 each time out.

South Carolina is last in the conference in scoring at 16.9 points per game.

Dobbs vs. Gamecocks’ secondary. UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs has had some of his best moments against South Carolina – in particularly at Williams-Bryce Stadium.

Two years ago, Dobbs threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 166 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-42 overtime victory in Columbia.

Tennessee trailed 42-28 late in the game. Dobbs scored on a 3-yard run with 1:50 left and threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Jason Croom to tie the game at 42-all after Aaron Medley’s PAT kick.

Last year, Dobbs threw for 255 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 35 yards in the Vols’ 27-24 victory over the Gamecocks in Neyland Stadium.

South Carolina has been solid against the pass this year, ranking second in the SEC in yards allowed per game (183.6).

Tennessee is seventh in the league in passing yards per game (224.0).

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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