Three Areas Of Concern For Tennessee

SS FOOTBALL VIEWS GRAPHICThere are three topics that always — always — enter the conversation following a football loss:

1. Play-calling (A way too easy catch-all.  “Run the ball” sounds nice when shouted from Section QQ, but the reality is Tennessee has hundreds of different run plays.  Not to mention the fact that execution sorta/kinda plays a role in making a selected play succeed.  Good calls can fail.  Bad calls can go for touchdowns.  Play-calling is overused because it’s so easy for any of us to say “run” or “pass.”)

2.  Throwing across the middle (I’m convinced that a team could throw 15 slants and 20 crossing patterns and there would still be people clamoring for more throws across the middle.  Sometimes it’s legit — like against Oklahoma last week, for example — but most of the time it’s a crutch.  You don’t have to know football to say, “Throw across the middle!”  So people say it whether or not it’s really an issue or not.)

3.  The officials (Ever notice how no one ever calls in to talk shows to discuss the many times calls go IN their team’s favor?  Say, like Josh Dobbs’ fumble/non-fumble last Saturday?  That could have eeeeeeasily been called an Oklahoma touchdown.  But most of the focus after the game for Vol fans — and for a VFL or two on my show Sunday — was on the horrible pass interference call whistled against Malik Foreman in the fourth quarter.  And it was bad.  Awful call.  But all those things come out in the wash.  You get this call, you don’t get that call.  A team has to perform well enough to not leave a game in the hands of the refs.)

Well, those are NOT the three areas of concern I have for this year’s Tennessee football team.  I would say I have four — with youth/depth added in as Number Four — but I covered that issue yesterday.  So here are the areas that concern me after UT’s 1-1 start:

1.  Linebackers.  It’s Year Three of the Butch Jones era in Knoxville.  The Vols have flat torn it up on the recruiting trail since Jones’ arrival.  (Remember when the big concern was could his crew recruit?)  So how in the world do the Vols have only one linebacker who looks up to snuff at this point in the rebuild?  Jalen Reeves-Maybin accounted for 21 tackles versus Oklahoma.  He’s legit.  He’s a gamer.  He’s alone in terms of proven SEC-caliber linebackers on the Vol roster.  Freshman Darrin Kirkland is now set to start in place of former walk-on Colton Jumper versus Western Carolina.  Nothing against Jumper, but Kirkland is the better athlete.  Still I’ve only seen Kirkland flash against Bowling Green.  I have no clue whether or not he can stand up against the Floridas, Georgias and Alabamas to come.  And who else is there?  There are 12 pure linebackers listed on UT’s roster.  Ten of those 12 have played two years of college ball or less.  No one wanted to hear that back in July or August but it sure has become an issue in September.  Expect to see some of those pups thrown into the fray against the Catamounts this weekend.  Until someone shows he’s deserving of a starting spot, be glad that Tennessee stays in a 4-2-5 look most of the time.  It’s been hard enough finding two linebackers.  God help ’em if they had to find three.

2.  Wide Receiver U.  Tennessee started using that moniker again the last couple of years because a) the Vols kept signing four- and five-star pass-catchers and b) it’s a nice name to use on the recruiting trail.  So how come none of the stud, star, play-making wideouts are, ya know, making plays?  Talking with Jimmy Hyams this morning regarding Marquez North, we noted that even on those few spectacular catches he has made in his career… he’s been covered.  Why are the Vol receivers having trouble creating separation from DBs?  Why are they not making much of their opportunities after they catch the ball?  There hasn’t been a lot of YAC from these guys in terms of long runs after securing the football.  Perhaps the Volunteers need to tighten up their receivers’ rotation just a tad.  Pig Howard is consistent on the field (when he’s not suspended).  Von Pearson is allegedly another Cordarrelle Patterson, though he’s yet to live up to the hype.  North has the body type and can make an impressive catch, even if he can’t always get open.  On and on we could go down the list and there’s upside for many of Zach Azzanni’s receivers.  But the fact that true freshman Jauan Jennings was just converted from quarterback to receiver in Fall camp and he’s still earned starts over all the other guys?  Well, that doesn’t seem to be good news.  Time to step up or shut up in terms of that “Wide Receiver U” talk.

3.  Offensive Line.  Hey, I told ya so on this front.  I’ve written that Josh Dobbs was NOT the pure 100% reason that the offense turned things around last season.  We’ve taken it up on our TV show on August 16th and again on August 30th.  Maybe Oklahoma will be the exception rather than the rule, but until I’m proven wrong, I’ll remain on my own little island believing that even a running quarterback in a zone-read system needs something of an offensive line in front of him.  If simply plugging a runner into a zone-read scheme meant victory after victory, there’d be a whole lotta schools winning right now because every team in America seems to be going to that style offense.  Against Oklahoma, when the Sooners put eight in the box, Tennessee’s run game went bye-bye.  Worse, their “throw game,” as Jones calls it, never got off the ground.  OU dared UT to beat its defense over the top.  Didn’t happen.  Dobbs was inaccurate and the receivers weren’t getting open.  But the big concern for me was and is pass protection.  And I’m not even talking about Oklahoma’s blitzes.  Those required a back or Dobbs to account for the blitzers.  No, I was concerned because OU’s defense was able to get to Dobbs with a four-man rush.  Just as it did last year.  Twists, slants and stunts by the Sooner D-line resulted in free runs at Tennessee’s quarterback.  Just as they did last year.  There were plays on Saturday that looked exactly like last year’s game.  Dobbs?  Justin Worley?  Doesn’t matter when a guard goes one way and a defensive end wraps behind the tackles, through the hole left open by the guard, and rampages into the QB’s face.  Call me crazy, but Dan Mahoney’s bunch should have seen enough twists, stunts, etc, last season — against Oklahoma specifically — to not be left flat-footed and open-mouthed when the Sooners dialed up the same tactics last Saturday.  I had my doubts about the last-minute shuffling of the line in August.  Coleman Thomas to center, Kyler Kerbyson to right guard and Brett Kendrick to right tackle seemed to pop up out of nowhere.  Now there are some folks inside the program who believe Chance Hall and Jack Jones deserve a shot on the right side of the line.  Personally, I would go back to the end of last season, study the results with Mack Crowder in and out of the lineup and give long consideration to putting him back into a starting role.  UT’s line looked good when he and Dobbs played together.  But when Crowder was out versus Missouri and Vanderbilt the offense went south… even with a zone-read runner at the helm.  Whatever the solution, I did not expect Tennessee’s offensive line on Saturday to fall victim to the exact same schemes Oklahoma used to generate a four-man pass rush last season.  But they did.  They looked flummoxed and bewildered.  And that will have to be cleaned up by the time the Volunteers roll into Gainesville.

— John Pennington

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