VOL. 132 | NO. 194 | Friday, September 29, 2017
Link on UT
Shaky Start Exposes Raw Nerves as Dawgs Roll In
Dave Link, Knoxville Sports Correspondent
Tennessee football coach Butch Jones had more than Georgia on his mind this week. Rumors on message boards and reports on sports talk radio flamed the fires around Jones and the Vols after last Saturday’s 17-13 victory over Massachusetts at Neyland Stadium.
It was Tennessee’s worst showing of the season. The Vols (3-1, 0-1 SEC) were 28-point favorites against UMass (0-5), which had possession with a chance to win at game’s end.
UT might be fortunate to be in such a situation Saturday at 3:30 EDT (TV: CBS) against No. 7 Georgia at Neyland Stadium. Georgia (4-0, 1-0 SEC) is coming off a 31-3 victory against No. 24 Mississippi State last Saturday in Athens. The Bulldogs opened as seven-point favorites against the Vols earlier this week.
Jones started the week with a testy exchange with reporters to end his Monday press conference. It was sparked by questions about an injury to defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, reported by 247Sports to be an orbital bone injury (severe black eye).
Tennessee’s John Kelly is tied with Georgia’s Nick Chubb for the most rushing touchdowns in the Southeastern Conference with six. They’ll be on the same field Saturday. (Jerry Denham/The Ledger)
The exchange began when Knoxville News Sentinel columnist John Adams asked Jones this question: “Butch, did Shy Tuttle’s injury occur during an incident with a teammate?”
UT director of football communications Zach Stipe quickly intervened, saying he called on Jimmy Hyams of Sports Radio’s WNML to ask the final question.
“This is Jimmy’s (question),” Stipe said. “I said ‘Jimmy.’”
“(Hyams) handed me the mic,” Adams replied.
“I said ‘Jimmy,’” Stipe said.
“Well, could. …? Adams started to say.
“Jimmy gets the last question,” Stipe said.
Hyams then asked: “Was Shy Tuttle’s injury related to a teammate ‘causing him to be injured?’”
Jones replied: “Well, I’ll tell you this. Football is an emotional game. It’s a competitive game. The injury was caused not by a teammate. He landed on a helmet, and that’s the truth, and I think we have to understand: What do we want out of our media?
“This place with the drama, and again, these are kids, and I think we all have children, and we’re all adults, and are we focused on Tennessee football from a recruiting standpoint, from all the positive things we’ve done, from all the positive things this football program brings to the community, this great fan base, are we in the reality world of TV?
“And I think all of us as human beings have to self-check ourselves, and you may not like that answer, but I’m a father. I have three boys, and I think we sometimes got to put ourselves in the role as a parent, as well.
“And I understand we all have jobs to do. My expectation as a head football coach, I’m the caretaker of Tennessee football. I’m here to develop and grow a football program, recruit the best possible student-athletes to represent the University of Tennessee, and win football games and graduate our players.
“That’s my responsibility. I take that very seriously. But also, I love our kids, and I’m going to protect our players and I’m going to protect our program, and sometimes the negativity is overwhelming, and if everyone as Vol fans, how do we let our opponents use this in the recruiting process with fake news?
“And sometimes, again, we have to check ourselves. What are we here for? What’s our values and principles that guide our life every single day?
“And I appreciate everyone in this room. You guys have a job to do, and I’m respectful of that. And I’m friends with a lot of you guys in the room, and I appreciate it. But also, there comes a certain time where enough is enough. So, thank you. You guys have a great day. I look forward to seeing you on Wednesday. Go Vols.”
Hyams said later Monday on his radio show, “SportsTalk,” that he and Adams talked before the press conference about reports of UT starting safety Nigel Warrior punching Tuttle and causing the injury.
Hyams also said during his show that, according to four of his sources, Tuttle’s injury was caused by Warrior’s punch, that he and Adams talked before the press conference about which one of them would ask Jones about the cause of Tuttle’s injury, that Adams raised his hand several times to ask the question and was never called upon to ask it, and when Hyams was handed the mic for the final question he handed the mic to Adams, who then handed it back to Hyams.
Jones also seemed bothered earlier in the press conference when Patrick Brown of 247Sports asked why injured receiver Jauan Jennings hasn’t been on the sideline for UT’s two home games this season.
Jennings, junior wide receiver from Murfreesboro Blackman High, suffered a dislocated wrist in the opener against Georgia Tech and could be out for the season.
“You guys look for everything,” Jones responded to Brown’s question. “I think you’re running a reality TV show that feeds off of drama. (Jennings is) in the building every day. He is doing a great job with recovery.
“I think we all know Jauan. Jauan is an extremely competitive young man, and it absolutely bothers him to be on the sideline because he feels he can’t help the football team, and that’s his makeup. And again, he’s doing everything he needs to do.
“He’s doing a great job in class. He’s getting the recovery that he needs, the rehab that he needs, and again, that’s his decision (not to be on the sideline). I don’t want him to be on the sideline and kind of make it worse in terms of [if] it’s bothering him right now that he feels he can’t help the football team.”
Jennings might not want to be on the Vols’ sideline, but maybe he needs to be there. He’s one of the Vols’ “alpha males,” a spirited, respected and vocal team leader.
Tennessee clearly showed a lack of passion Saturday against UMass.
“We talk about the different things that make up the structure of our football program,” Jones said. “It starts first and foremost with energy and passion, and I thought it was very lackluster. We had some players now that played with some energy and some passion, so it’s not everyone, but it’s what I spoke about post-game. It has been an isolated incident.
“I think we’ve showed some passion and some energy in the other games, but that’s something we will not tolerate. We will not go backwards with that, and we’ll address that situation, and you can make a lot of excuses for it, but there is no excuses for lack of passion and energy.”
The Vols better not lack it Saturday, or Georgia will run them out of Neyland Stadium.
Matchups to watch
Bulldogs’ backs vs. Vols’ front
Georgia boasts one of the SEC’s best stable of running backs with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel opting to return for their senior seasons instead of entering the 2017 NFL Draft.
They’re not the Bulldogs’ only rushing threat.
Freshman D’Andre Swift, a consensus four-star recruit from Philadelphia, is Georgia’s second-leading rusher with 196 yards and is averaging 7.3 yards per carry, tops on the team. He’s scored one rushing touchdown.
Chubb, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Vols in 2015, leads Georgia with 371 rushing yards and six touchdowns and is averaging 6.3 yards per carry.
He was the 2014 SEC Freshman of the Year, and last season led the Bulldogs in rushing with 1,130 yards (5.0-yard average) despite missing the second half against Ole Miss and only playing one snap against Tennessee.
Michel has rushed for 192 yards and two touchdowns this season, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He was Georgia’s second-leading rusher last year with 840 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry.
In the win against Mississippi State, Chubb rushed for 81 yards and two touchdowns with a 5.4-yard average, Swift ran for 69 yards and averaged 6.9 yards per carry and Michel rushed for 32 yards with a 4.6-yard average.
Tennessee held UMass to 144 rushing yards, second-lowest for a UT opponent this year (Indiana State ran for 122 yards). The Vols are allowing 156.6 rushing yards per game.
Georgia is averaging 223.2 rushing yards through four games.
Kelly vs. Bulldogs’ front
UT’s run game got stuffed in the second half against UMass, and that’s a major concern against Georgia.
Junior John Kelly is the SEC’s leading rusher with 450 yards and is tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns with six (tied with Chubb, who’s third in the league in rushing yards).
Against UMass, Kelly rushed for 80 yards on 14 carries in the first half, but finished with 101 yards on 25 carries as the Vols stalled out after halftime. The Vols gained 135 rushing yards against an UMass defense that ranked No. 119 in the nation in run defense (187.2 yards per game) before the UT game. UMass also had 12 tackles for loss (UT had 13 tackles behind the line in its first three games).
Georgia is giving up 97.5 rushing yards per game and has allowed two rushing touchdowns this year. The Bulldogs’ 4-3 defense is stacked in the front seven led by senior outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter and inside linebacker Roquan Smith. Smith leads the team in tackles with 27, ahead of safety J.R Reed (25) and Carter (17).
“We’ve got to be able to run the football,” Jones said. “Make no mistake about it, we cannot be a one-dimensional football team. We’re not built that way. We’ve got to have great balance.”
Georgia QBs vs. Vols’ secondary
Sophomore Jacob Eason started the season opener against Appalachian State, left with a sprained knee and hasn’t played since. His absence has hardly slowed the Bulldogs.
True freshman Jake Fromm has started the past three games and thrown for 650 yards and seven touchdowns with one interception. He’s completing 62.3 percent of his passes.
Fromm, a January enrollee from Warner Robins, Georgia, completed nine of 12 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns against Mississippi State. In the first half, Fromm completed all eight of his passes for 160 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown pass to Terry Godwin on the first play of the game.
His three incompletions included a dropped pass by Godwin, a catchable pass to Javon Wims and a deliberate throw-away.
Even if Eason is healthy, he’s probably not going to replace Fromm as the starter. Fromm’s quarterback rating of 172.03 is second in the SEC behind Shea Patterson of Ole Miss.
Tennessee’s secondary is emerging as the best position group on the defense, perhaps by default.
UMass threw for 137 yards on 13-of-22 passing, but its passing game was all but gone when starter Andrew Ford got hurt on a hit by Elliott Berry in the second half and didn’t return.
Ford was 11 of 17 for 129 yards and a touchdown before leaving the game. Ross Comis entered for Ford for one play in the second quarter and scored on a 5-yard run. With Ford out, Comis was 2-of-5 for 8 yards.
UT injury update
Jones said Tuttle and starting center Jashon Robertson should be ready for the Georgia game. Robertson had an undisclosed injury and missed the UMass game.
Starting tight end Ethan Wolf and backup Jakob Johnson were injured against UMass, and third string tight end Eli Wolf was out for UMass with an injury sustained against Indiana State. Jones said he’ll know more about the status of the tight ends by game time Saturday.
Senior safety/kick returner Evan Berry hasn’t played since hurting a hamstring in the opener against Georgia Tech and won’t play Saturday, according to Jones.
Tennessee is without seven injured starters: Jennings, offensive tackle Chance Hall (knee), linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. (knee), linebacker Cortez McDowell (wrist), linebacker Austin Smith (knee), safety Todd Kelly Jr. (knee) and Berry.
Dogs’ injury update
Michel returned for the Mississippi State game after being held out of the Samford game due to a sprained ankle.
Eason was in uniform and threw during warm-ups last Saturday, but Georgia coach Kirby Smart said after the game Eason could not have played and wasn’t cleared to play.
Starting right guard Solomon Kindley re-injured a sprained knee in the second half, and Smart said X-rays were negative.
Senior cornerback Malkom Parrish, a two-year starter, saw his first action of the season last Saturday on the third play from scrimmage. He missed the first three games due to a foot injury that required surgery. Receiver Michael Chigbu was back after missing the Samford game, but didn’t catch a pass against Mississippi State.
Vols’ QB questions
Junior quarterback Quinten Dormady finished the UMass game 17-of-27 passing for 187 yards and a touchdown without an interception.
He completed nine consecutive passes in the second quarter as the Vols’ seemed to find their rhythm in a hurry-up offense, but there was no carryover into the second half.
Dormady was benched and replaced in the third quarter by redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano after Dormady opted not to run on a third-and-5 situation, instead throwing an incomplete pass. He also fumbled on a running play in the first half.
Guarantano, meanwhile, played just three series in the third quarter and was 2-of-5 passing for minus-3 yards. UT gained one first down with Guarantano in the game, and another would-be first down didn’t happen when Brandon Johnson dropped a Guarantano pass on third down.
“Play of the quarterbacks are the byproduct of everyone around them,” Jones said. “We always talk about it. They get too much praise when things go well and too much blame when things don’t go well, but that’s all part of playing quarterback.
“I thought Quinten did some very good things. Again, every game, whether it’s Jarrett or whether it’s Quinten, is a learning experience.”
Each of the last six games between Georgia and Tennessee has been decided by eight points or fewer.
Tennessee has won two consecutive games in the series against Georgia and last year beat the Bulldogs 34-31 on Joshua Dobbs’ Hail Mary pass to Jennings on the last play of the game.
In each of the last two wins against Georgia, Tennessee trailed by 17 points or more at the half.
Finebaum, SEC Nation visits
SEC Nation, the SEC Network’s traveling game-day set, will broadcast live (10 a.m.-noon ET) from The Hill on the Ayres Hall lawn.
As a primer, UT graduate and longtime SEC analyst Paul Finebaum of ESPN and the SEC Network will host his show on Friday from 2-3 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and from 3-7 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
SEC in the polls
Alabama stayed No. 1 in the AP poll after its 59-0 win over Vanderbilt.
Other SEC teams in this week’s AP rankings are Auburn at No. 13, up from No. 15 after a 51-14 win over Missouri last week; Florida at No. 21, down from No. 20 after a 28-27 win over Kentucky in Lexington, Mississippi State at No. 24, dropping seven spots after the loss to Georgia and LSU at No. 25, moving up from the unranked teams with a 35-26 win vs. Syracuse.
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.