VOL. 132 | NO. 184 | Friday, September 15, 2017
Link on UT
All Eyes on Shoop’s Defense Against Gators
Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent
Butch Jones will coach one of the biggest games of his Tennessee career against Florida on Saturday.
It’s an even bigger game for UT defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
Shoop was hired Jan. 9, 2016, from Penn State to fortify Tennessee’s defense, arriving with much hoopla and great expectations. So far, he has not delivered like he did at Penn State (2014-15) and Vanderbilt (2011-13).
Shoop needs his defense to make a stand against Florida.
Vol running back Ty Chandler breaks into open field against Indiana State last week. With Florida giving up 215 yards rushing against Michigan, Vols running backs could be in for a big day. (Jerry Denham/The Ledger)
The game is scheduled for Saturday (3:30 ET) in Gainesville, and will be played there despite Hurricane Irma roaring through the Sunshine State last weekend.
The 23rd-ranked Vols (2-0) opened the season Sept. 4 by beating Georgia Tech 42-41 in double-overtime in Atlanta, and last Saturday beat outmanned Indiana State 42-7 at Neyland Stadium. UT will be playing its third game in 13 games against Florida in the SEC opener for both teams.
No. 24 Florida (0-1) failed to score an offensive touchdown in a 33-17 loss to No. 7 Michigan in the Sept. 2 season opener in Arlington, Texas.
The Gators were without nine suspended players, including starting tailback Jordan Scarlett and star receiver Antonio Callaway. Their status for the UT game was unchanged earlier in the week.
The University of Florida was closed from last Thursday until Wednesday due to the hurricane, perhaps delaying a decision on the suspensions.
Florida hoped for a tune-up last Saturday after the lackluster offensive showing against Michigan, but its home game against Northern Colorado was cancelled due to the hurricane.
Tennessee also didn’t get much of a tune-up against Indiana State, an average Football Championship Subdivision team (previously Division I-AA).
And Shoop’s defense is a major concern heading into SEC play.
The Vols gave up 655 total yards (535 rushing) and 33 first downs against Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense in the opener. It wasn’t the way Shoop’s group needed to start the season. Not after the way it ended the 2016 season.
Tennessee gave up 635 yards in a 49-36 win over Kentucky in the 10th game. The next week, the Vols gave up 740 yards in a 63-37 win over Missouri. Vanderbilt gained 608 yards in a 45-34 win against UT in the regular-season finale.
After a 38-24 win over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl – the Cornhuskers were held to 318 yards – Tennessee finished 95th in the nation in total defense (449.2 yards per game).
Shoop wasn’t hired for that kind of defense.
Tennessee held Indiana State’s oft-shifting offense to 215 yards, but Jones didn’t put much stock in the defensive performance.
“It’s been a challenge to really evaluate everything defensively just because of the different types of offenses we’ve seen the last two weeks,” Jones said Monday at his weekly press conference. “They’ve been entirely different. But what you can evaluate is the fundamentals, the effort, the details, and that’s something that I think everyone in our football organization would agree upon.
“We have to get better in a hurry, and I’ve met with a lot of our players, and they understand.”
Tennessee’s defense must get better against Florida, or the heat will ratchet up on Shoop from media and fans.
Missouri fired defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross last Sunday, the day after a 31-30 loss to South Carolina, two games into the season.
I can’t see Tennessee firing Shoop midseason, but if this defense isn’t better than the 2016 unit, I’m not sure about after the season.
Matchups to watch
Gator QBs vs. Vols secondary
Like the Vols, Florida has questions at quarterback.
Redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks threw for 75 yards and completed five of nine passes in the loss to Michigan before being replaced by graduate transfer Malik Zaire in the third quarter.
Zaire, who played at Notre Dame, completed nine of 17 passes for 106 yards.
After the game, Gator fans took to social media to blast Florida’s lack of offense and the play selection of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Two days after the loss, Florida coach Jim McElwain defended his coordinator and said frustration of the offense should “put the ire on me.”
Florida had 192 total yards, converted only two third-downs and never made it into the red zone. Its two touchdowns came on interception returns.
Franks was expected to start against Northern Colorado, but McElwain said the staff would evaluate the quarterback situation again before the UT game.
UT has given up 190 passing yards in two games this season, but the secondary has yet to face a true test from a traditional FBS offense.
Georgia Tech quarterback TaQuon Marshall completed five of nine passes for 120 yards against the Vols, but hit passes of 44 and 42 yards as the Vols focused on stopping the “flexbone” triple option.
Indiana State’s Cade Sparks threw for 70 yards while completing eight of 17 passes, including a 23-yard TD pass to Jacquet McClendon.
Tennessee goes into the Florida game unsettled with its quarterback situation. Junior Quinton Dormady got his second start against Indiana State and threw for 194 yards and two touchdowns (13 of 18). However, Dormady also threw his first interception of the season in the end zone and lost a fumble while taking a sack.
Redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano completed four of 12 passes for 41 yards and a touchdown.
“We’ll continue to compete (at quarterback) and we’ll see what happens through the course of the week of preparation,” Jones said Monday.
Vols D line vs. Gators O line
Where will the Vols’ defense line up against the Gators?
When they played Georgia Tech, the Vols’ front was almost 2 yards off the line for snaps, and against Indiana State, moved up about a yard or so closer to the line.
Georgia Tech rolled up 535 rushing yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry against UT, but last Saturday rushed for only 210 yards and averaged 4.3 yards per carry in a 37-10 victory over Jacksonville State, an FCS opponent.
Indiana State gained 122 rushing yards with a 3.2-yard average against the Vols.
At Monday’s press conference, Jones was asked why the defensive front was lining up off the ball.
“I think everybody’s looking for it now,” Jones said. “We’re always a yard off the line of scrimmage, or (a) hand behind the ball, not quite a yard, but that’s something that we continue to talk about and grow and develop. Again, we’ve seen some very non-traditional offenses in the first two games.”
Florida rushed for 66 yards against Michigan, but combined with tackles for losses and six sacks, accounted for only 11 net rushing yards against the Wolverines.
“I thought we had a good plan, obviously,” McElwain said after the game, “and then as it turned out, the plan was pretty well foiled by getting physically whooped by big, strong (Michigan) guys.”
Zaire was sacked five times and Franks once by Michigan.
Last year, Florida’s quarterbacks were sacked 28 times, third-most in the SEC. In 2015, Gator QBs sustained a nation-high 45 sacks.
Tennessee has one sack in two games. The Vols had no sacks against Georgia Tech; freshman end Deandre Johnson got the only sack on Indiana State backup Isaac Harker.
UT backs vs. Gators front 7
UT junior tailback John Kelly has been the workhorse the first two games. No surprise there.
Kelly gained 128 yards on 19 carries (6.7-yard average) and four touchdowns against Georgia Tech, and five days later against Indiana State ran for 80 yards on 18 carries (4.4-yard average).
Freshman Ty Chandler of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy was the only other UT running back with a carry in the opener, gaining 7 yards on his carry.
Last Saturday, sophomore Carlin Fils-aime gained 41 yards on three carries and scored on touchdown runs of 4 and 30 yards.
Chandler, who returned the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, had four carries for 14 yards against Indiana State and was the SEC Freshman of the Week; freshman Tim Jordan had 22 yards on four carries and freshman Trey Coleman had nine yards on four carries.
Michigan rushed for 215 yards and averaged 4.4 yards against Florida in the opener.
Tennessee snapped an 11-game losing streak against Florida last year with a 38-28 victory in Neyland Stadium, rallying from a 21-0 deficit.
However, the Vols haven’t won in Gainesville since a 24-10 win in 2003. Their losing streak in The Swamp was extended to six games in 2015 when Florida scored two touchdowns in the last 4 minutes, 9 seconds for a 28-27 victory. UT kicker Aaron Medley missed the potential winning field-goal attempt from 55 yards as time expired.
“Of course, you want to enjoy the win,” UT junior defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie said after last Saturday’s win. “Hug mom and dad, hug my sisters, and all that, but it’s Florida week now. It’s a different mindset. It’s the real season now. It’s time to get going. It’s time for our SEC rivals.”
Tennessee backup tight end Eli Wolf is questionable for Florida after suffering a sprained ankle against Indiana State.
Others Vols questionable for Florida earlier in the week were offensive lineman Marcus Tatum, receiver Baylen Buchanan, safety Evan Berry and linebacker Austin Smith.
Wide receivers Tyler Byrd, Latrell Williams, and Josh Smith are expected to return from injuries against the Gators.
Gators in Irma’s eye
McElwain counted 45 players on his roster who are from areas that got hit by the hurricane. Ninety-five Gators are in-state players.
There were plenty of anxious moments due to the hurricane, which put the loss to Michigan in perspective for the Gators.
“We were ready to play a game and get that taste out of our mouth,” McElwain said last Thursday on his weekly radio show after the cancellation was announced.
“At the same time, you realize there are a lot of things bigger in life than third down and six.”
Fils-aime was a four-star running back at Naples (Fla.) High School, and had home on his mind after last Saturday’s game.
The hurricane struck Naples on Sunday afternoon.
Fils-aime says the game gave him a chance to get the hurricane off his mind.
“It felt great,” he says. “Whenever I’m on the field, my worries go away. We talk about now and living in the moment, and that’s one of those things Coach Jones emphasized this week, was living in the moment now and not thinking of stuff that you can’t handle and stuff that’s in the past, or stuff that doesn’t relate to playing football.
“It felt great being out on the field with the guys, giving everything that I had with them and knowing that they had my back.”
The Vols were unable to use their “Team 121” trash can in the victory against Indiana State.
UT started a tradition last year of players dunking the football into a sideline trash can after turnovers, and it gained plenty of national exposure in the Georgia Tech game after two fumble recoveries.
The Vols spent much of the games with the “Team 121” trash can raised above their heads.
However, the Vols didn’t get any turnovers against Indiana State, and the SEC Network showed shots of the trash can sitting beside a table on the sideline.
“It’s something we’ve done for a year now,” Jones said the day after the Georgia Tech game. “We did it last year. It’s never meant anything as far as being disrespectful of the opponent. It’s just something that heightened awareness of turnovers, and having some fun with it.
“Our kids enjoy that. I think (media) think we’re the only school that does things like this. If you go around the country, pretty much just about everybody does something, whether it’s a heavyweight belt, whether it’s a chain, whether it’s whatever. I know there’s lots of schools that use trash cans. Our players enjoy it.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.