After being asked primarily questions about the Florida loss on Monday, questions for Butch Jones shifted more to Arkansas on Wednesday as the Vols prepare for the Hogs (1-3, 0-1 SEC) to come to town in a game between teams that really need a win to get their seasons headed in the right directions after slower-than-expected starts for both.
Here are a few notes from Wednesday’s media availability:
Injury update: Freshman linebacker Quart’e Sapp will be out an “inordinate” period of time with a stress fracture, according to Butch Jones. “I can’t really put a time frame on it,” Jones said. “It’ll be basically how the foot heals and how he’ll continue to progress.”
Sapp has appeared in all four games on special teams thus far in the 2015 season. He’s surpassed the percentage of games to qualify for a traditional medical hardship, though UT could make an appeal, as they did successfully for Dillon Bates (who also appeared in four games last year before missing the rest of the year), and possibly get this year of eligibility restored for Sapp, if he is out for the rest of the season.
There was no substantial injury update on Pig Howard, who missed last week’s game. Jones simply said he’d know more on his status later Wednesday. It’s probably fair to list him as questionable at this point. Jones said safety Max Arnold is questionable for the Arkansas game and running back/return man Ralph David Abernathy IV “may be available” for Saturday. Abernathy was in attendance at practice on Tuesday after missing the past few weeks.
Nickel competition still ongoing: The Vols replaced projected starting nickel Rashaan Gaulden in the preseason with Malik Forman, though the questions and the competition at that spot have been ongoing at that spot.
“We continue to be a work-in-progress there,” Jones said. “We’ve moved some players around there. Malik [Foreman] has done some good things for us, but just like anything in our football program we will continue to compete at that spot just like all of the other positions as well. I think with Justin Martin being able to do some good things, it allows us some flexibility to move some other individuals. The nickel position is a unique position in and of itself. I think it’s one of the most difficult positions in all of football because of what it requires from a skill set, from a mental standpoint as well and the different nuances that go in to that position. Malik has done some good things for us, but again we’re going to always work to always compete and improve in everything that we do.”
One option the Vols seemingly will have going forward is playing Martin and Emmanuel Moseley as the outside corners and then moving Cam Sutton, who worked at nickel a fair amount in the spring, inside to that spot. Sutton, however, said on Wednesday that he hasn’t been taking a ton of reps there in practice recently.
That spot, however, could see less action overall in the next stretch of the season with three teams that like to run the ball – Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama – up next. Arkansas’ style, in particular, could mean less opportunities for the nickel position in general, and more for an extra linebacker in the traditional 4-3 look. Freshman Austin Smith is listed as the third starting linebacker in the 4-3, and it sounds like his chance may be coming this week.
“It does change,” Jones said of the defense against Arkansas. “It changes some of your personnel groupings, so we’ll have some youngsters that haven’t been on the field as much, Austin Smith being one of those. Austin has worked very, very hard. He had a very good week of preparation. We’ll also do some things with Kenny Bynum and some of our other linebackers as well.”
More analytics talk: “Analytics” has been a very polarizing word this season ever since Jones said that was the determining factor in kicking an early field goal against Oklahoma instead of going for it on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line. Jones then said he used a chart to tell him to kick the extra point, instead of going for two, in the fourth quarter against Florida to give UT a 13-point instead of a potential 14-point lead over the Gators in what turned out to be a 28-27 loss.
Jones was very fairly asked on Wednesday to further explain the balance of analytics and gut feeling in how he makes his in-game decision.
“We don’t use analytics during a game,” Jones explained. “That is all leading up to the game. All that is is a support system for us. Obviously, you have to make great decisions and educated decisions, and I would say 99 percent of most decisions that are made on gameday are done in a controlled environment in a staff meeting room. We have a plan in place that we work on each and every week in terms of our preparation. That starts on Sunday and goes all the way until Friday morning. Most situations are done that way, which most programs do [it] that way. We don’t just go out there and make a decision by chance. They have usually been rehearsed.
“Sometimes, it is a gut feel. The fourth-and-two call [a jump pass from Alvin Kamara to Ethan Wolf for a first down at Florida] was a gut feel. We knew we wanted to do it at some point in time, but it was a gut feel for what we needed at that particular moment and that particular stage of the game in terms of momentum, so you do rely on gut instincts at times, but everything we do is also discussed and talked about very throughly.”
• It’s VFL Reunion Weekend and Jones said they’re expecting over 400 former players to be in attendance
• The 1965 team will also be honored on Saturday during the game. That squad finished No. 7 in the nation with an 8-1-2 record and a win over Tulsa in the Bluebonnet Bowl