VOL. 132 | NO. 219 | Friday, November 3, 2017
Link on UT
Jones’ Teams Have Never Regressed, Until Now
Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent
Looks like Butch Jones has survived another week to coach Tennessee’s football team.
What happens if UT loses to Southern Miss at homecoming Saturday night (7:30 ET, SEC Network) at Neyland Stadium? Good question.
Many thought Jones would be fired after Tennessee (3-5, 0-5 SEC) lost to Kentucky 29-26 last Saturday night in Lexington. It didn’t happen.
Jones said after the loss to Kentucky (6-2, 3-2 SEC) he “absolutely” expects to have continued support the rest of the season from UT first-year athletics director John Currie.
“Nothing has changed at all,” Jones says.
#27 Sophomore running back Carlin Fils-aime (73 yards), pictured, and freshman Ty Chandler (120 yards) filled in well against Kentucky for the suspended John Kelly. (Photo By Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics)
Tennessee has lost four consecutive SEC games, and Jones has lost much of the Big Orange fan base. He has a 2-9 record in his last 11 SEC games dating back to 2016.
Jones’ fifth team at Tennessee is assured of regressing from consecutive 9-4 seasons. It’s never happened in the 11-year head coaching career of Jones, whose teams at Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Tennessee had the same or improved records each season until this one.
“In terms of the record, obviously, (I’m) very, very disappointed, but not discouraged,” Jones says of the regression. “I understand the expectations of Tennessee football, and so do our players. It’s been one of those years when you look, I think we’ve had four (games) come down to the final play of the game, and it’s being able to close those games out.
“But just like anything, things don’t always go according to plan.”
Jones says he and his family have leaned on their supporters, not the detractors.
“In terms of my family and all of that, there’s been a ton of people that have been supportive,” he says. “This is a great community and we have a lot of great friends here, and there’s been a lot of people that have been extremely supportive.
“I understand everybody being upset, and if I was a fan, I’d be upset, too, so I bleed with them. But also, I understand we need to win some football games, and I’m going to do everything in my power for our players, for our university, for our program, to get that done.”
Jones had three recruits from his 2018 class de-commit in October, and others could bail on the Vols.
One is five-star offensive lineman Cade Mays of Knoxville Catholic High, who has not de-committed but visited Clemson last weekend. Mays told TigerNet during the visit he wanted to play for a winning program like Clemson, the reigning national champion.
“Absolutely. I want to win a national championship and get the best opportunity to play at the highest level,” Mays said to TigerNet. “Obviously, Clemson has the tools to help me achieve my goal.”
Jones was asked Monday what he’s been telling recruits and commitments during the last month when the Vols have lost to Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky.
#3 Freshman running back Ty Chandler had his breakout game against Kentucky, rushing for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries. His previous best performance was 45 yards against South Carolina. (Photo By Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics)
“It’s definitely been a challenging month, but the message has stayed the same,” Jones replies. “It’s been unfortunate with some of the things that’s happened this year, but this is where your character is really tested. You find out about the resolve and the resiliency of yourself and everyone around you, and (your) character’s on display.
“Our recruits understand what we have, what we continue to build here. They understand our relationships, so that really has been a non-factor because they know what we’re all about.”
Southern Miss (5-3, 3-2 Conference USA) could be a factor with a win Saturday night. Tennessee opened as a 7.5-point favorite.
The Golden Eagles are coming off a 30-12 home loss to UAB (5-3, 3-2 C-USA) last Saturday. Their other losses are to Kentucky 24-17 in the season opener and to North Texas 43-28.
Jones said his players aren’t affected by his lack of job security and don’t need Currie to reaffirm his support for their sake.
“Our players, just like us (coaches), it’s back to work for another week,” Jones adds. “Again, they’re ready to go just like our coaching staff. It’s a week-to-week season as we talk about, and it’s all about Southern Miss and getting ready to play in Neyland Stadium for homecoming.”
Jones didn’t give a direct answer when asked if he’s been reassured by Currie about his job status after this season.
“All we do is we talk about day-to-day and week-to-week, and that’s been the constant theme since he came in here,” Jones said. “Again, our conversations are from anything to everything.”
Matchups to watch
ITO VS. UT ‘D’
Southern Miss senior tailback Ito Smith is 22nd in the nation in rushing yards (817), averaging 102.1 yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry. He has seven rushing touchdowns.
The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Smith also is the Golden Eagles’ third-leading receiver with 27 catches for 325 yards and two touchdowns.
UAB held Smith to 36 yards on 12 carries, but Smith had an 84-yard catch-and-run TD from Keon Howard in the first quarter.
Tennessee gave up 289 rushing yards against Kentucky, which averaged 8 yards per carry. The Vols are 124th out of 129 FBS teams in rushing defense, allowing 252.3 yards per game.
HOWARD, GRIGGS VS. UT ‘D’
Howard won the Southern Miss starting quarterback’s job in preseason over junior Kwadra Griggs, but was pulled in the second half of the UAB game for Griggs.
Both could play against Tennessee.
Howard completed 14-of-25 passes for 207 yards and a touchdown against UAB. Griggs, playing for the first time in four games, was 5-of-13 for 59 yards, but threw an interception that was returned 41 yards by Darious Williams for UAB’s last touchdown.
In seven games, Howard has completed 60.1 percent of his passes for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions. Griggs has played in five games and completed 52.2 percent for 1,010 yards and eight touchdowns with two interceptions.
Howard is Southern Miss’s second-leading rusher with 152 yards, averaging 3.5 yards per carry and no TD runs. Griggs is fourth on the team with 91 rushing yards and a 2.2-yard average and one TD.
Tennessee is 80th in the nation in total defense, allowing 400.9 yards per game.
GUARANTANO VS. SOUTHERN MISS ‘D’
UT redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano has the quarterback duties resting on his shoulders with junior Quinten Dormady scheduled to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery earlier this week.
Tennessee’s only other scholarship quarterback is true freshman Will McBride, who hasn’t played a snap this year.
Guarantano replaced Dormady as UT’s starter for the sixth game of the season, a 15-9 home loss to South Carolina. Guarantano started against Alabama and Kentucky.
In six games, Guarantano has completed 61.7 percent of his passes for 473 yards with one TD and one interception. Against Kentucky, he was 18-of-23 for 242 yards without a TD or interception; he rushed for 57 yards on 15 carries, but finished with minus-5 rushing yards due to seven sacks.
“I thought Jarrett continues to improve,” Jones said. “I think he’s making significant progress – game in and game out. Are there a few throws he’d like to have back that were touchdown throws that we left out there? Yes. But that’s all part of the growth and maturation of a freshman quarterback.”
Southern Miss gave up 417 yards offense against UAB – 209 on the ground and 208 in the air. UAB freshman Spencer Brown rushed for 209 yards on 33 carries (6.3-yard average) last Saturday.
Fifth-year senior Josh Smith suffered an ankle injury against Kentucky and will miss the Southern Miss game. The former Christian Academy of Knoxville standout has five catches for 43 yards this season.
Junior running back John Kelly and freshman Will Ignont returned to practice Monday and could play against Southern Miss. Both were suspended after a traffic stop Oct. 24. Kelly, who was driving the car, was cited for marijuana possession. Ignont, a passenger in Kelly’s car, was cited for possession of drug paraphernalia.
“They’ll be back at practice (Monday) and we’ll see how the week of preparation goes, whether they’ll be available for the game or not,” Jones added. “That’s on them.”
Sophomore defensive end Darrell Taylor returned from suspension and played against Kentucky. His only stat from the game was a quarterback hurry.
Senior kicker Aaron Medley returned to practice this week after a bout with mononucleosis. He’s competing with freshman Brent Cimaglia for the starting kicker’s job.
Southern Miss junior receiver Korey Robertson has caught a pass in 21 consecutive games after catching six passes for 65 yards against UAB.
The 6-1, 210-pound Robertson leads the Golden Eagles in catches (43), receiving yards (580) and TD catches (seven). He’s averaging 13.5 yards per catch.
Senior Allenzae Staggers is second in catches (31), receiving yards (377), and TD catches (three). Staggers led Southern Miss in receiving last year with 63 catches for 1,165 yards and seven TD catches; he set New Orleans Bowl records with 11 catches and 230 receiving yards in a 28-21 win over Louisiana-Lafayette.
Southern Miss had eight tackles for loss against UAB for its fourth consecutive game with at least eight tackles for loss.
Junior linebacker Jeremy Sangster had 2.5 tackles for loss against UAB and a season-high 11 tackles.
The Golden Eagles are 12th in the nation in tackles for loss with 62 and tied for 55th in sacks with 17. Paxton Schrimsher leads Southern Miss in sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (6.5).
Tennessee gave up seven sacks and 12 tackles for loss against Kentucky. The Vols have given up 23 sacks this season (106th most in the nation) and allowed 63 tackles for loss (120th most in nation).
“When you look at it on paper, you say seven sacks (by Kentucky), and right away you think it’s the offensive line,” Jones offered.
“It was a combination sometimes. Jarrett needs to throw the football away, understanding field position and where we’re at, and sometimes it was a coverage sack and you have to throw the football away. Sometimes not getting rid of the football quick enough. Sometimes it’s a missed assignment or a running back, so it wasn’t just on the offensive line.”
With Kelly suspended, UT true freshman Ty Chandler of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy was a highlight of the Kentucky game. He rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns and had two catches for 33 yards – and had an 80-yard TD run called back for a penalty.
Chandler was a consensus four-star running back at MBA and was rated the No. 5 running back in the nation by 247Sports.
Kelly leads the Vols in rushing with 615 yards and six touchdowns. Chandler is second with 238 yards.
UT sophomore Carlin Fils-aime had 12 carries for 73 yards against Kentucky. Fils-aime has 147 rushing yards this year. He and Chandler are tied for second on the team in touchdown runs with two each.
“I was really excited about the play of all three running backs,” Jones says. “I thought all three really stepped up, not only on the field but off the field in terms of leadership, (on) the sideline. … I thought Ty brings some different dynamics to our offense, so it was great to see there.”
UT-SOUTHERN MISS SERIES
Tennessee is 5-0 in games against Southern Miss with all the games played at Neyland Stadium.
In their last meeting, the Vols beat the Golden Eagles 39-19 in 2007 – the last season Tennessee played in the SEC championship game (UT lost to LSU 21-14 and beat Wisconsin 21-17 in the Outback Bowl).
Southern Miss is in its second season under head coach Jay Hopson, whose 2016 team went 7-6 after the win in the New Orleans Bowl.
Jon Gilbert, who was UT’s executive senior associate athletics director from 2011-17, is in his first year as Southern Miss’s athletics director.
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.