While a lot of the attention has been on UT’s defensive injuries this spring, Tennessee’s offense was already short-handed to an extent coming into the spring as well.
Receiver Jason Croom and tight end Alex Ellis were out. Running back Jalen Hurd, receiver Josh Smith and Marquez were all limited from the get go.
Now the injuries are piling up on top of those for the offensive side of the ball. Running back Alvin Kamara (thigh) has been held out the last three practice. Receiver Pig Howard is practicing in a green, non-contact jersey after bruising his ribs. Receiver Cody Blanc, coming off a torn Achilles in 2014, is now out for the rest of spring as well after breaking some ribs on Thursday, according to Butch Jones.
So while Jones was noticeably unhappy with the offense during Saturday’s scrimmage as penalties, dropped passes and missed assignments piled up, it’s also hard to deny the effect that these injuries are having.
“I think it is a byproduct right now of depth at running back,” Jones said of some of the offensive inefficiency on Saturday. “You take Jalen Hurd out of your offense, you take Alvin Kamara out of your offense, you are a little bit different football team. We are banged up a little bit at wide receiver. Alton Howard has some bruised ribs so he was in green today. I thought he let that affect him, normally he has been a very, very consistent performer for us.”
And certainly having walk-on running backs carrying the load will take a toll on offensive production in any setting.
Case-in-point: Arguably the best play of the day for the offense came on one of Hurd’s few opportunities, when he took a handoff and rumbled for what looked like a 20-yard touchdown in one of the overtime settings. Officials ruled that he was touched mid-run, and that brought it back since Hurd is wearing a non-contact jersey, but it was the type play that likely would’ve been a TD in true live action.
But the injuries and the limited use of Hurd, Kamara, North and others on offense also didn’t completely excuse some of those other issues like the sailed passes and the dropped balls.
“It’s hard to tell (why we were off),” said tight end Ethan Wolf, who had a critical drop in one simulated overtime drill. “Maybe just an off day, but it’s something we’re going to improve upon. I know we weren’t satisfied with our completion percentage, so we’re going to go back to practice this next week and try to get our timing down and make sure every ball is caught.”
Wolf viewed mistakes such as dropped balls on Saturday as an anomaly for an offense that has done a lot of good things through the first half of spring practice.
“No, today was unusual,” he said. “We’ve been making some great plays throughout this week. Last practice we watched film as a unit and Johnathon Johnson laid out and made an incredible catch. Typically, some of the plays that were dropped today were just pitch and catch. We have to make those plays. That hasn’t been a factor this spring, so I’m sure it will get cleaned up by Tuesday.”
As always is the case in an intra-squad setting, issues on one side of the ball can usually be looked at as a positive for the other side as well. And that’s the case for Saturday. The defense clearly came with a different mentality after the offense mostly had its way in last week’s scrimmage.
“I thought our defense came out – I liked their mental approach,” Jones said. “I did not like our offense’s approach. I thought we were stale, I thought we had no mental effort, I thought we had no intensity about ourselves. I think it showed.”