Looking Forward with the Rearview Mirror
Is there anything we can take from Saturday’s win over Georgia State (or the season opener for that matter) that applies to the future? Especially the immediate (Florida Gators) future?
This intangible can’t be underestimated. The new-found energy that has manifested as a consequence of an impressive start; the first national ranking since 2008 (No. 23 in the AP poll announced Sunday; not ranked in the USA Today coaches’ poll which is horsesh*t anyway); ESPN’s announcement that their weekly roadshow, GameDay, will be broadcast from Knoxville (three hours of air time, beginning at 9:00 am on ESPU and then continuing at 10:00 am on ESPN); and the almost excruciating anticipation of Saturday’s game against a hated rival — all of this could mean as much as 10 points if not more.
Nothing significant has come out of the Vol camp in terms of any players that are likely not to be fit enough to go on Saturday.
However, two of Tennessee’s key defensive players, linebackers Herman Lathers (shoulder) and Curt Maggitt (turf toe), were kept out of action Saturday due to injuries suffered against NC State two weeks ago. Lathers had been kept out of harm’s way for a significant portion of August practices and scrimmages due to a variety of physical issues, so it was almost foreseeable that the defensive squad’s vocal and spiritual leader would get injured again. His sheer presence on the sideline is an asset, but he will be good enough to at least start against Florida.
Maggitt’s ailment is equally troublesome as it is a ‘nagging’ injury that can only get better with complete rest, and it limits mobility, especially lateral movement, that is so important to a linebacker. But you can bet he will have it strapped on for the Gators.
On Saturday against Georgia State, Willie Bohannon and Dontavis Sapp filled in admirably for Lathers and Maggitt, but overall depth is not a positive feature of the linebacking corps.
Several true freshmen saw game action against Georgia State: RB Quenshaun Watson, WR Jason Croom, DLs Omari Phillips and Trent Taylor, and DBs Daniel Gray and LaDarrell McNeil. Other debuts were made by OLs Mack Crowder, Kyler Kerbyson, and Alan Posey; and DL Trevarris Saulsberry.
The standout performance that has caused some positive buzz was that of freshman RB Quenshaun Watson, who was given his first touch during the latter part of Tennessee’s first drive of the fourth quarter (which ended with a field goal). Watson was given a serious look during the Vols’ next possession during which, after Geraldo Orta intercepted a pass deep in Georgia State territory, Watson carried the ball on every play from scrimmage. He ran for 15, -2, 0, 10, and 2 yards, the last for a TD. He looked promising, showing a real forward burst — an attribute that has been the center of criticism of the Vols’ running game, especially Rajion Neal.
The Rattlesnake Attack is Back
Senior and birthday-boy TE Mychal Rivera didn’t see much action in the opener, at least in terms of his hands touching passes. But he featured in the subsequent game with four catches for 70 yards and a TD.
Rivera was actually injured coming into the season (knee) — causing him during August camp to feature in a red non-contact jersey — but has been well enough to play along with other TEs Ben Bartholomew and Alex Bullard, the latter featuring as the second in a two-TE set.
If Rivera can stay healthy (he has lost 10 to 15 “bad” pounds causing a lot of double-takes at his new, sleeker physique that makes him look like a speedster), he will take a lot of pressure off of the doubling-of-our-WRs-to-come and also be a weapon to augment a rushing attack that is far from sufficient for the big boys in the SEC.
The 3-4 Defense is Still a Work in Progress
No doubt Sunseri’s men are playing with a renewed sense of urgency. But as chronicled during the pre-season, the new scheme demands different responsibilities and skills than the previous Justin Wilcox defense, particularly regarding communications on the field between players in reaction to offensive sets. Several of the defensive players after Saturday’s win alluded to this as a continuing project that needs work. Tennessee had difficulty defending against Georgia State’s slant routes and other routes over the middle. Three GSU completions of more than 20 yards were allowed during the first half when it was still a game. And the secondary missed too many tackles.
There is going to be a lot of screaming in faces during this week in preparation for real football.
But the Panthers could not amass a running attack against the Vols (only 87 yards on 41 attempts), partly the result of good pressure on the backfield by the defensive front (who also registered 3 QB sacks). Panthers’ RB Donald Wilson was successfully contained. NC State didn’t do much better with better talent (119 yards on 32 carries).
The Running Game Remains a Question Mark
A game where the Vols rushed for 184 yards on 43 attempts (4.3 yards) is nothing to sneeze at except it was against an FCS opponent. RB Marlin Lane was benched for a fumble in Vol territory in the 2nd quarter. Rajion Neal rushed for 2 TDs but only amassed 65 yards on 13 carries (although he had no fumbles which has been his Achilles’ Heel).
There were flashes of hope, including a 30 yard run by Devrin Young.
But the question remains from last season: Is it the OL or the RBs? It’s a difficult question because the OL has been giving Bray a lot of time to checkdown and find the right receiver time and time again.
The conventional wisdom at present is this: the backs are not quick enough to and through the OL on a consistent basis, with too much tippy-toeing to the outside. But the answer is for the position coaches to find out. In the end, it will likely take a running game to maintain possession when needed to kill off a game. That is how Florida was able to defeat Texas A&M Saturday.
George Cafego Must Be Spinning in his Grave
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: this is the worst excuse of a kicking game I have ever witnessed of a Tennessee Volunteers squad. And this has continued to be a serious problem beginning with Daniel Lincoln’s sophomore season.
Matt Darr has been reasonable as a punter (about 37 yds per kick on 6 punts which have included situations demanding corners, not boomers). But the room for improvement with this California product is consistency in ball striking.
Consistency is not Michael Palardy’s problem. He has been consistently awful as a place kicker.
I was amused at listening to Fuad Reveiz on Saturday’s post-game call-in show. He expressed an opinion that Palardy’s issues are ones that can be worked out on the practice field, although perhaps not in the same way as Reveiz’s own early problems were addressed by his coach, George “Bad News” Cafego: “Just go out there and kick the goddam ball through the uprights.”
Having said that, it might be worth a try.
When I saw backup kicker Derrick Brodus’ kicks on Saturday (as well as in last year’s ‘famous’ game against Middle Tennessee State), one thing struck me: his ball striking is consistent, the ball rotation is symmetrical, the kicks have no bend allowing for straight ball flights, and he gets very good elevation on all kicks.
Brodus supposedly can’t get the distance on his place kicks that Palardy can. So here is the solution that I would like to see implemented immediately: BRODUS KICKS ON ALL EXTRA POINT ATTEMPTS AS WELL AS ALL FIELD GOAL ATTEMPTS INSIDE 40 YARDS. ANYTHING LONGER NEEDS TO BE HANDLED WITH GOING FOR IT ON FOURTH DOWN, UNLESS THE REMAINING YARDAGE IS TOO LONG FOR THE SITUATION AT HAND SO AS TO LET PALARDY HAVE A WACK AT IT.
Did I make myself clear?
Good. Because the trend to date tells me that Palardy’s kicking is going to cost us a very important game down the line this season. I’m sure his parents love him. But this has got to improve or else.
So there we are — a work in progress with tremendous upside potential, but with question marks in very important areas that will be crucial to success against the very good teams.
Saturday brings the Florida Gators to Knoxville in a game of such anticipation that Vols fans nationwide are losing their mind for this work week to hurry up and end.
This is THE litmus test for this Tennessee squad. No matter what you hear about how awful Muschamp is as a head coach, or how disjointed their offensive attack is, or how bad Texas A&M is (Florida narrowly defeated the Aggies on Saturday) — what the Gators have done this season is win a conference game in an extremely hostile environment outside their comfort zone, something that the Vols have not done in some time.
And they did it in a style that can be termed unorthodox for Florida football — grind it out on the ground (along with a very stingy defense) when the other options weren’t clicking. That kind of a win seems like a pipe dream for this Tennessee team.
But the Vols themselves are a bit unorthodox in the sense that so far they kill their pray with short, swift attacks of offensive prowess that perhaps could even leave an alligator wondering what hit them. Throw in a score or two by this new defense and you open up a world of possibilities not attainable only a short season ago.