Less than 20 hours from the kickoff to Tennessee Football Season 119 and four things are on my mind. When the Vols kickoff in Nashville against Bowling Green, I’m going to be watching…
1. The offensive line. What ranks ahead of the Volunteers front wall? The O-line was the biggest issue for most of the 2014 season and the shuffling along that line in August 2015 has my feelers up. Center Mack Crowder was the leader of last year’s unit — proven by the line’s back-step versus Missouri and Vanderbilt without him — yet he’s apparently been passed on Butch Jones’ depth chart. Coleman Thomas, who was expected to move to right tackle just a couple of weeks ago, now looks set to start at his natural position ahead of Crowder tomorrow. To his right will likely be Dylan Wiesman and Brett Kendrick. Kyler Kerbyson and Jason Robertson are expected to handle the left side of the line. One thing we’ve talked about on our show with analysts/VFLs Mike Stowell and Jacob Gilliam is the need for chemistry, cohesion, and communication up front. With the changes from center to right tackle, one wonders how long it will take to get everyone on the same page. Toss in the fact that Jones has said he wants to have a rotation of players (at least early in the season) and all eyes should be glued to the O-line. If the Vols’ front five can’t consistently open rushing lanes or protect Josh Dobbs on Saturday, it won’t be a real good sign for those folks hoping for 10, nine or even eight victories in 2015.
2. The secondary. Three weeks ago this was viewed as a position of strength. Now there are question marks. Assuming the Volunteers stay mainly in the nickel — and most teams do in this day of spread offenses — UT has already lost two of its starters for much of — if not all — of the Fall. Rashaan Gaulden is gone for the year at the nickel position. Expect Malik Foreman to get the first crack at that spot tomorrow. Starting safety LaDarrel McNeil is also down with a serious neck injury which is likely to end his season. Todd Kelly — who many fans expected to slide right into the starting lineup — is limited following tonsil surgery. (Now, that’s one you don’t often see on the injury report.) So Evan Berry will be the nickelback for Jones’ squad in Nashville. Many folks have yawned regarding the loss of McNeil, but while Kelly and Berry might have more upside, there’s a reason they’ve run two and three behind McNeil each of the last two seasons. And with Kelly’s throat issues we also see that each body lost is another knock on the team’s depth. “Not sweating McNeil? Well, what happens if Kelly goes down,” I asked on last Sunday’s show. We’re about to find out against what’s expected to be a pretty good passing offense. And who knows what goes down if Berry stubs a toe?
3. The team’s health. Just touched on it, so let’s stay in the injury zone. Tennessee has more top to bottom talent than it’s had on its roster since 2007. Unfortunately — and as Jones likes to point out — much of that talent is extremely young. Doesn’t mean those guys can’t play, just means the jury’s out on whether they’re ready to play big roles now. In a perfect world the Volunteers race by the Falcons early and go to their backups early. It’s been a while since Tennessee experienced the perfect world. And three lost starters before Game One seems to suggest the Vols might still have a few black cats running around on campus. Depth is an obvious concern at quarterback as it is with just about every team in America. No one wants the starting quarterback to be felled by an injury. That’s especially true for a UT team that’s offense took off with Dobbs behind center a year ago. Another area of concern is at running back. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara — if given support by the line in front of them — could be UT’s most-talented 1-2 back combination since the 1990s. No small statement. But Hurd has a history of shoulder injuries. And we’re still not sure how game-ready backs three and four might be. Beware the injury bug.
4. Mike DeBord’s impact. No one likes the offensive coordinator. You can say that anywhere in the country. We all believe we can call plays better than the guy with the actual play sheet. Fact of life. Goes with the territory. Another cliche suggesting the same thing. If a run doesn’t work, the idiot should have thrown. If a pass is picked, the dunce should’ve run. DeBord won’t get a lot of rope because many fans saw him as too old and too far removed from the game to be hired by Jones in the first place. That’s unfair until we get a load of his offense in 2015. And it’s not just play-calling I’ll be watching. DeBord has toyed with Dobbs’ stance/delivery in an attempt to increase his consistency as a passer. Jones said throughout August that he still wanted to see more consistency. How will Dobbs look throwing the football against what should be a so-so (at best) Bowling Green defense? If he doesn’t look good, expect the new coordinator to hear some grumbles on the postgame call-in shows.
And one last thing to keep in mind while watching the Vols’ opener is this — don’t read too dang much into an opener! Tennessee’s 2006 squad blasted California in David Cutcliffe’s triumphant return and everyone thought the Vols were SEC title-bound. Turns out, that first game was probably the Volunteers’ best effort all season long.
On the other end of the spectrum, I was in the stands in 1989 when the Vols stumbled their way to a humdrum 17-14 win over lowly Colorado State. The next week, Sterling Henton — on his birthday — led Tennessee to a blowout upset of UCLA in Los Angeles and the Volunteers were on their way to an 11-1 season, an SEC title, a Cotton Bowl victory and a #5 national ranking. No one was talking much about the Colorado State game when January rolled ’round.
So no matter what transpires at Nissan Stadium tomorrow, don’t overreact.
Well, OK. If Tennessee somehow loses… THEN you can overreact.
We’ll see you Sunday morning at 11am on WATE-TV 6 in Knoxville for The Sports Source. This week’s crew includes Jimmy Hyams, Bob Hodge, Chuck Cavalaris and a five-man panel of VFLs including the aforementioned Gilliam and Henton as well as Will Overstreet, Daniel Hood and Shazzon Bradley.
For the most honest, most in-depth postgame coverage of Vol football (with a peak ahead to Oklahoma, too), join us for The Sports Source.
— John Pennington