VOL. 132 | NO. 174 | Friday, September 1, 2017
Vols, Jackets Each Eager to Make Statement
Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent
Enough of the talk. Enough of the speculation. Let’s play some football.
Tennessee starts its fifth season of the Butch Jones coaching era on Monday night against Georgia Tech at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Kickoff is 8 p.m. (TV: ESPN).
The Vols aren’t exactly easing into the season. Tennessee opened as a three-point favorite in the spring and was a 3.5- to 4-point favorite earlier this week.
Both teams are coming off 9-4 seasons and bowl victories.
Senior linebacker Cortez McDowell (20), who started four games last year but played in 12, will be tested by Georgia Tech’s triple-option running attack, the only time this year the Vols are scheduled to face such a scheme. (Hayley Pennesi/Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com)
Georgia Tech, which was 3-9 in 2015, went 4-4 in the ACC (fifth in the Coastal Division) last year and beat Kentucky 33-18 in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Tennessee, picked to win the SEC East Division last year, slid to 4-4 in the SEC (tied for second) and beat Nebraska 38-24 in the Music City Bowl.
“Obviously, they’re a great challenge, from your style of play to the defense, but also special teams,” Jones says. “And then, (our) offense understanding that every possession is absolutely critical, and it’s going to be a challenge for us. They’re a veteran football team. They returned a lot of starters on defense (seven), they’re good in special teams, and we all know how dynamic they are on the offensive side of the ball.”
Paul Johnson begins his 10th year as Georgia Tech’s coach and his 21st year as a head coach. He’s run the same offense for all 21 years at Georgia Southern, Navy, and now Georgia Tech.
It’s a triple-option offense called a “flexbone.” Few college teams run it.
“It makes you stay focused,” UT senior linebacker Cortez McDowell says. “Any wrong read or any wrong footstep, or anything, that can get you beat. It’s everybody just being locked in and owning their responsibility to help us be successful.”
Tennessee can’t afford to take a wrong footstep against Georgia Tech. Not with its schedule ahead.
The Vols have a quick turnaround after Monday’s game. They play host to FBS opponent Indiana State on Sept. 9 at Neyland Stadium before its SEC opener Sept. 16 against Florida in Gainesville. SEC media predicted Georgia to win the SEC East, edging Florida in the poll, with Tennessee finishing third. Other preseason publications have Florida winning the East with Georgia second and UT third.
After a Sept. 23 home game against UMass, Tennessee plays host to Georgia on Sept. 30.
A loss to Georgia Tech in the opener would be a troubled start to what many see as a make-or-break year for Jones.
The Vols will be underdogs in the Oct. 21 game at Alabama and likely underdogs Nov. 18 against LSU at Neyland Stadium.
If the Vols go 8-4 again, Jones is probably safe – his UT contract runs through the 2020 season –ß but 7-5 puts him on shaky ground, and 6-6 even worse.
His counterpart at Georgia Tech has some swagger to him, too. Johnson has boasted the “ACC certainly doesn’t have to take a backseat to anyone, anymore,” and referred to the league winning two of the last four national championships (by Florida State and Clemson).
Johnson had another stinger for the Vols after Georgia Tech’s win over Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
“We’re 3-0 versus the SEC East, and we have Tennessee next,” said Johnson, whose team also beat Vanderbilt (38-7) and Georgia (28-27) last season.
There’s been lots of change for both teams since their bowl wins. Both have been aiming for Labor Day’s game for a long time.
The 2017 opener can’t get here soon enough.
“Not just myself,” UT tight end Ethan Wolf points out, “but I think everybody’s ready to go out and face Georgia Tech and the rest of our schedule this year, because you hit the same guys for a month, it gets a little redundant.”
3 matchups to watch
UT linebackers s. Tech RBs
Tennessee appeared to take a huge hit to its linebacker corps last Friday when Darrin Kirkland Jr. sustained a knee injury.
Jones says Kirkland’s injury is being evaluated and there is “no timetable” for his return.
However, Mike Griffith of SEC Country, reported sources saying Kirkland’s injury involves a torn meniscus and could require surgery.
Kirkland, a potential starter at middle linebacker, is the Vols’ most game-tested linebacker, but a high-ankle sprain in the second game limited him throughout the 2016 season. He started 10 games as a true freshman and was on the 2015 All-SEC Freshman team, but last year he started just six games and played in eight. He had arthroscopic knee surgery in June.
Senior Colton Jumper also is a candidate at middle linebacker along with Kirkland after starting seven games last year (six at middle, one at weak-side).
McDowell started four games last year at weak-side linebacker and played in 12, finishing seventh on the team in tackles (54). Senior Elliott Berry also started four games at weak-side linebacker.
Georgia Tech, meanwhile, must replace its top three rushers from last year’s offense, which ranked ninth nationally in rushing (258.1 yards per game).
Leading rusher Dedrick Mills was suspended earlier in August for violation of unidentified athletic department rules. Mills rushed for 771 yards and 12 touchdowns last year.
Clinton Lynch, who rushed for 415 yards last year, is questionable for the opener after being held out of preseason with an unspecified injury. He also led the team in receiving last year (490 yards, six touchdowns).
Qua Searcy returns after rushing for 273 yards last year.
UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop expects a formidable rushing attack from Georgia Tech – even without Mills.
“(Johnson) will always have a fullback,” Shoop says. “They have talked about a true freshman playing, and we’ve watched all the guys. (KirVonte) Benson had a good spring game, and they’ve had some other guys at the fullback position that are very good players. Coach Johnson knows how to utilize his talent.”
Butch Jones downplays the loss of Mills.
“It doesn’t affect us one bit,” Jones adds. “I believe they were 3-0 without him last year. They have a system obviously that is very challenging and they have good players.”
Vol QBs vs. Tech secondary
Georgia Tech’s secondary was suspect last season – the Yellow Jackets were No. 68 nationally in passing defense (229.4 yards allowed per game) – but with five starters returning could improve significantly. Twin brothers Lance Austin (cornerback) and Lawrence Austin (nickel back) top the secondary.
Tennessee’s starting quarterback remained a mystery throughout fall camp, but most expect junior Quinten Dormady to get the nod against Georgia Tech over redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano.
Jones had yet to announce the starter as of Monday, and early in fall camp said both quarterbacks could see action against the Yellow Jackets.
UT’s quarterback situation has been a hot topic since spring practices with the departure of Joshua Dobbs, the three-year starter now playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Dobbs was UT’s leading rusher last year (831 yards, 12 TDs) and threw for 2,946 yards and 27 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. Those numbers probably won’t be matched by UT’s quarterback of 2017. No matter who he is.
UT special teams vs. Tech special teams
Tennessee has one of the SEC’s top punters in senior Trevor Daniel, the starter since his sophomore year.
Daniel, a multi-sport athlete at Dickson County High, earned a scholarship before the 2015 season when he averaged 45.7 yards per punt, eighth in the NCAA and second in the SEC. Last year, Daniel averaged 44.6 yards per punt, third in the SEC. He’s been on the Ray Guy Award Watch List the past two years.
Jones spent fall camp evaluating place-kickers Aaron Medley and Brent Cimaglia. Medley, UT’s starter since his freshman year, has been solid from inside 40 yards and inconsistent from beyond.
Thus, Cimaglia got plenty of looks this fall. The true freshman from Page High in Franklin was rated the top kicker in the state by Scout.com and has a career-long field goal of 47 yards.
UT’s Evan Berry enters his senior season third on the program’s career return yardage list with 1,677. His return average of 34.2 yards is the best in program history, and he’s returned four kickoffs for touchdowns during the past two seasons. He’s the twin brother of Elliott Berry, brother of Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, and son of former Vols running back James Berry (1978-81).
Georgia Tech has a new punter and place-kicker for the first time in four years as kicker Harrison Butker and punter Ryan Rodwell were seniors in 2016.
They’re expected to be replaced by two freshmen. Pressley Harvin III of Sumter (South Carolina) High was rated the nation’s No. 4 punter by 247Sports Composite, while Brenton King of Mill Creek High in Hoschton, Georgia, was the No. 19 punter by 247Sports Composite.
Noteworthy Vol injuries
Kirkland isn’t the only Vol to get hurt in fall camp.
UT’s most recent casualty (before Kirkland) was senior receiver Josh Smith, who suffered a sprained AC joint in his shoulder during practice Aug. 20.
Smith’s career at UT has been beset by injuries, and this one could knock him out of contention for a starting job, probably at slot receiver, for up to a month, according to Jones.
Also, Jones announced at the start of camp junior right tackle Chance Hall have season-ending surgery and freshman tackle K’Rohjn Calbert had a knee injury.
Hall was expected to start.
Starting left tackle Drew Richmond missed practices last week with an undisclosed illness/injury, putting sophomore Marcus Tatum at No. 1.
Freshman receiver Jacquez Jones of Clearwater (Florida) High suffered a season-ending injury during fall camp, and graduate transfer Shaq Wiggins missed time with a hip injury. Defensive tackle Shy Tuttle just starting working live drills last week while recovering from a season-ending knee injury last year, and defensive tackle Quay Picou and Alexis Johnson have also been limited to injuries.
Nothing new here.
Last year, 17 of UT’s 22 starters missed at least one game due to injuries, and the Vols’ 52 missed starts led the nation. Tennessee used seven different offensive lines in 2016, seven different defensive lines, eight linebacker lineups and 11 different secondary lineups.
Georgia Tech starting linebacker Brant Mitchell played for Webb School of Knoxville, and sophomore slotback Nathan Cottrell played for Knoxville West.
Mitchell, a junior, started all 13 games last year at middle linebacker and was fourth on the team with 71 tackles. He played in all 12 games as a true freshman in 2014 and started three games, finishing with 36 tackles.
At Webb, Mitchell was a two-time Tennessee Mr. Football award winner in Division II-A in 2013 and 2014. He was a two-way starter at fullback and linebacker as Webb won three consecutive state championships. Mitchell was a teammate with UT senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. while at Webb.
Cottrell ran a sub-4.4-second 40 while at West High, prompting an early scholarship offer from Georgia Tech (and quick commitment). Cottrell rushed for a school-record 3,974 yards and 48 touchdowns at West and led the Rebels to a state runner-up finish in 2013 and state championship in 2014. He was offensive MVP of the 2014 state championship game.
As a freshman at Georgia Tech, Cottrell suffered a season-ending injury in fall camp. Last year, Cottrell played in 11 games, primarily on special teams, and was Georgia Tech’s No. 1 kick returner in five of the last six games.
Who’s Tech’s QB?
Johnson, the Georgia Tech coach, said a couple of weeks into fall camp he had a starting quarterback, but he didn’t say who the starter would be for Tennessee.
Four players were competing for the starting job: Matthew Jordan, TaQuon Marshall, Lucas Johnson, and Jay Jones.
Their task in replacing three-year starter Justin Thomas in the flexbone offense is huge. The triple option is as difficult to run as it is to defend.
Jordan was Thomas’ backup last season, but this preseason was coming off a foot injury that kept him out of the second half of spring. He also missed time early in preseason with a shoulder injury.
Marshall was No. 3 on the depth chart last year, but moved to No. 1 in the spring when Jordan was hurt.
Lucas Johnson is a redshirt freshman from San Diego. Jay Jones is a redshirt freshman from McCalla, Alabama.
Vols’ impact freshmen
Offensive lineman Trey Smith of University School of Jackson isn’t the only impact freshman on Tennessee’s roster.
True freshmen Theo Jackson of Nashville’s Overton High and Shawn Shamburger of Colquitt County High in Moultrie, Georgia, are working their way into the secondary rotation, and freshman running back Ty Chandler of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy could be the Vols’ No. 2 tailback behind junior John Kelly.
Jackson was a three-star safety at Overton and was rated the No. 1 athlete in the state as a senior by Scout.com. Shamburger was a consensus three-star cornerback at Colquitt County.
Chandler rushed for 2,252 yards and 39 touchdowns as a senior at MBA and was a consensus four-star prospect. Trey Smith, competing for a starting job at guard, was a five-star prospect at USJ and was rated the No. 1 prospect in the nation by ESPN as a high school senior.
Junior Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High is poised to be UT’s top receiver with the departure of Josh Malone to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Jennings had 40 catches for 580 yards and seven touchdowns last season, second only to Malone’s 50 catches for 972 yards and 11 TDS. He had two of the biggest catches of the year for the Vols.
His 67-yard TD catch against Florida sparked a 38-28 comeback victory, and the next week his 43-yard TD catch of Dobbs’ Hail Mary pass as time expired gave the Vols a 34-31 victory over Georgia.
While at Blackman High, Jennings was a consensus four-star dual-threat quarterback, but he switched to wide receiver during fall camp of 2015. He played in 11 games with six starts as a true freshman, finishing with 14 catches for 149 yards.
“He’s as competitive as anyone on our football team,” Butch Jones says of Jennings. “I wouldn’t trade him for anybody.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.