State of the Vols: Victory in Columbia Edition

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    Josh Dobbs-1

     Football

    In summer conditioning, strength coaches often pushed players into “overtime,” or extra drills above and beyond the plan, with the idea that this team would need every extra advantage it could get for a situation like Saturday.

    It paid off. After a week that Butch Jones encouraged players to “empty the bucket” and to be prepared to do “whatever it takes,” the Vols pulled off one of their biggest comebacks in recent history, storming back 14 points in under five minutes to tie the game and eventually finish off the Gamecocks in overtime.

    It was a fun scene in Columbia. Elliott Fry’s potential tying field-goal attempt fell well short and the Vols poured onto the field to celebrate their first SEC road win over a non-Vandy/Kentucky team since 2007. The Vols spent plenty of time celebrating with the Tennessee section in the corner of the end zone with several rounds of cheers and Rocky Top going on.

    The celebration spilled into the locker room where players described it as a “party” with plenty of dancing, selfies and an overall feeling of relief and excitement as the Vols got their first SEC win of the season and took a big step towards bowl eligibility. Multiple players came into post-game interviews without much of a voice after the celebration.

    It continued all the way onto the bus with fans waiting over an hour to greet the coaches and team as they loaded up to catch their flight back home. They were then greeted by some fans in Knoxville as well. It was the first time any players on the current roster were able to fly home celebrating a road win as a Vol.

    Obviously the win was a huge relief, but there are issues that the Vols will take the bye week to address. First and foremost is a defense that has struggled mightily for two weeks after carrying the team for most of the season. Some of it is clearly mental and physical fatigue as this group is talented, but not particularly deep at some spots. Some key players continue to play 70+ snaps per game and that likely will be the reality for the rest of the season. It should also be noted that the Vols also have played two top-5 teams in the SEC in total offense over the past couple weeks, so the level of competition for the defense has been extremely high, whereas all three remaining opponents are among the bottom five in the league in total offense at this point.

    Health is another concern, with a few more injury issues flaring up in Columbia. Most serious appears to be Marlin Lane, who suffered a lower-leg injury, possibly his ankle, and was unable to put weight on it after the game. We haven’t heard a prognosis for him at this point, though there’s clearly concern about his availability going forward.

    The Vols were also shorthanded at receiver. Marquez North banged up his shoulder and was unable to play late in the game. Josh Malone was limited as well. That pressed the likes of Jason Croom, Johnathon Johnson and even Ryan Jenkins into some extended snaps at crucial times.

    Coleman Thomas did not dress at SC, though Marcus Jackson made his return to the lineup. The Vols went primarily with the Kyler Kerbyson, Jackson, Mack Crowder, Jashon Robertson and Jacob Gilliam look on the o-line, though Brett Kendrick did see a few snaps at left tackle in the first half. Both last week’s and this week’s combinations did some good things, so it’ll be a luxury for offensive line coach Don Mahoney to have some depth going forward, especially when Thomas returns, which the Vols hope will be against Kentucky in two weeks.

    If you’re still wondering if Dontavius Blair is in the plans this season at all, the junior was left off the travel squad altogether on Saturday with walk-on Thomas Edwards among the players who got the nod over Blair to come on the road.

    Devrin Young (ribs) and Josh Smith (ankle) are among the players we’ll be monitoring at practice this week. Both have a chance to return and the Vols need depth, which Young can help provide, in the backfield with uncertainty about Lane’s status. The coaches face an interesting dilemma with Smith. The talented sophomore could be eligible for a medical hardship if he doesn’t play again that season. The coaches would love to have him for the final push for a bowl, but this bye week will be big to see how his ankle responds after getting some running in last week. RTI has been told by a source close to Smith that surgery on his slow-healing ankle is a possibility, and a decision on that front could be made early this week.

    Not that there was much doubt at quarterback, but Joshua Dobbs clearly solidified himself as the starter going forward. Justin Worley (shoulder) was never a serious threat to play at SC and it’s unclear if he’ll have any chance to return this year in any capacity. Worley did not dress and was on the sideline as a spectator. Jones loves talking about keeping the competition, but Dobbs, who set a Tennessee record for rushing yards for a quarterback and approached 500 yards of total offense, clearly will continue to lead this rejuvenated offense down the stretch.

    Expect the Vols to get some fundamental work and early Kentucky prep in this week. Butch Jones does call them ‘work’ weeks, not bye weeks, after all. But also look for Jones to give his overused players plenty of rest as well to prep for the final three games as the Vols look to return to the postseason for the first time since 2014. And speaking of the postseason, bowl reps from the Taxslayer, Outback, Citrus and Belk Bowls were all there to see UT’s dramatic win over the Gamecocks.

    But the Vols aren’t in position to be choosy yet. It’s all about Kentucky right now and the Vols have two weeks to be as prepared as possible.

     Recruiting

    It was another quiet week on the recruiting trail for the Vols this week with the team and coaches being on the road for the second game in a row, but there were still some interesting developments over the weekend that are worth noting.

    We’ll start with some of Tennessee’s current commitments and their reactions to Tennessee’s win over South Carolina late Saturday night.

    There had been some recent speculation that Tennessee’s struggles this season were starting to have a negative impact on the recruiting trail, but Saturday’s win and the response from the committed players should serve as a stress-reliever for Vol Nation moving forward.

    The most interesting developments of the weekend, however, came from in-state prospects Van Jefferson and Drew Richmond.

    Jefferson committed to Georgia in late-August, but that hasn’t stopped Tennessee’s coaches from continuing to recruit the talented Nashville native out of Ravenwood High School. Jefferson sent out a tweet on Sunday that simply read, “Decisions, decisions….”

    Now this could mean nothing at all, but I do think it is worth noting that Butch Jones usually spends the majority of his sunday afternoon calling and chatting with Tennessee’s top recruiting targets. I think it is safe to say that Butch Jones probably gave Jefferson the hard sell on the future of Tennessee’s offense with Josh Dobbs at the helm and made sure he knew how big of an impact he could make in a receiving corps that features a very deep rotation. With Georgia’s blowout loss to Florida over the weekend in a game that featured very few big plays by Georgia receivers, there is certainly reason to believe that Tennessee’s growing success on offense may be having an impact on the talented Jefferson.

    Another interesting development regarding a Vol recruit that is currently committed elsewhere were the tweets by Drew Richmond late Sunday evening. As I mentioned earlier, Sunday is the day Butch Jones generally calls all of his top targets, so you can bet that Drew Richmond heard all about how much Tennessee’s offense has improved over the last two weeks.

    Not only did Richmond retweet the Jefferson tweet imbedded above, but he also sent out the following tweets during the same timeframe:

    Richmond then retweeted the following tweet sent to him by Kahlil McKenzie:

    Obviously, there is a lot of time remaining until signing day in February, but it seems clear that Tennessee’s staff and current commits are still working extremely hard to secure commitments from their top-rated targets…regardless of if they are currently committed elsewhere or not. Butch Jones has already shown a unique ability to zone in on – and eventually sign – his top targets over the last year and a half, so Jefferson and Richmond are definitely names that you shouldn’t check off of your list just yet.

    Finally, if you haven’t seen our commitment stats post from Saturday, I highly recommend it. Quinten Dormady continues to put up impressive numbers for Boerne High School and Knoxville’s Joc Bruce had another devastating hit last week in South Doyle’s 33-19 win over Sevier County.

     Basketball

    It’s basketball time in Tennessee! Seriously. The Vols play their first exhibition game tonight against Pikeville, the No. 2 NAIA team in the nation. Tip is scheduled for 7:02 pm and it will be televised by SEC Network+ (watch live here). Tennessee returns to the court Saturday for an exhibition game with Lenoir-Rhyne (SEC Network+) 7:02 pm.

    Pikeville lost 116-68 to Kentucky last night, but they have the tools to challenge the Vols this evening. Don’t be surprised if this is a dog fight at least for a while. Kevin Punter, Josh Richardson, Devon Baulkman, Derek Reese and Dominic Woodson are listed as probable starters for the Vols. That’s a different look than Tennessee showed in practice last week when they had Armani Moore in place of Reese and Willie Carmichael in place of Woodson. Regardless, those seven will play serious minutes for Tennessee tonight and this season. Robert Hubbs, Detrick Mostella and Tariq Owens should see significant time off the bench.

    Tennessee picked up a massive commitment from 2015 shooting guard Chris Clarke last week. Tyndall and Co. beat out Virginia, Virginia Tech and defending national champs UCONN for his services. Clarke was one of the top targets on Tennessee’s recruiting board and is a consensus top-100 prospect. The Vols now have the fourth ranked class in the SEC and the No. 32 class in the nation according to 247Sports.

    We’ll have full coverage of Tennessee’s games this week. Their Thursday practice will be open to the media – we’ll be there with coverage as well.