What went wrong for the Tennessee Vols?
Steve Palazzolo breaks down their struggles in the opener -- and why Vols fans should still be optimistic for this season.
What went wrong for the Tennessee Vols?
An offseason darling, Tennessee escaped with an overtime win against Appalachian State, surviving an opener that would put a serious damper on what is supposed to be a huge season in Knoxville. Everyone loves Tennessee for all the right reasons: top recruiting classes turning into experienced veterans, stars on both sides of the ball and a senior quarterback with dual-threat ability. However, there have been a few weaknesses in Knoxville over the last couple of seasons, and they popped up once again in Thursday night’s opener.
Offensive line is experienced, but are they better?
One reason for blind optimism was their returning four starters along the offensive line, and while experience usually bodes well for offensive line improvement, the Vols have been bad up front in recent years. For an offensive line that ranked among the worst in college football the last two years — including a run-blocking grade that ranked 59th out of 65 Power-5 teams — the issues do not appear to be resolved after one game.
Quarterback Josh Dobbs was under quick pressure all night, to the point that it looked as if Tennessee was running screen passes and letting free rushers get through. The running game was not much better, despite having the three-headed monster of Dobbs and running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Even with multiple run threats and the ability to keep defenses off-balance in the option game, there was little room to run all night. Many assumed that more experience up front would lead to massive improvement, but if the offensive line woes continue, it’s going to be difficult for Tennessee to live up to the hype.
Inconsistency from Dobbs
Few will argue that Dobbs is a better runner than he is passer, and last season’s 86.4 running grade and 63.3 passing grade back up that point. When picking the Vols to challenge in the East this season, it was mostly dependent on Dobbs pairing with Hurd and Kamara to form one of the best running attacks in the nation, but also moderate improvement from Dobbs in the passing game. Last night we didn’t see that improvement, as Dobbs was still marred by scattershot accuracy and poor decision making — whether it was an under-thrown pass for an interception at the end of the first half or throwing an out route into a cover-2 cornerback that also should have been intercepted. Dobbs finished the night 16-for-29 for 192 yards, and while he doesn’t have to become a 300-yard passer every week, he needs to find a way to hit a few more passes along to way to balance out the running attack.
Weak up front on defense?
The interior of the defensive line made great strides last season, particularly in the running game. Departed defensive tackle Owen Williams was a big part of that, but encouraging play from true freshmen Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie made for a bright-looking future in the trenches. However, last night was ugly at times, as the defensive line was blown off the ball more than you’d like to see. (Though credit must be given to Appalachian State, who boast the No. 3 offensive line per PFF offensive line analyst Taylor Wright.) Of the three listed weaknesses, this is the area of least concern. They have the young talent at defensive tackle and they’re stout on the edge with defensive ends Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen, so while it was ugly in the trenches last night, the Vols have the horses to shore things up on the interior.
Reasons for optimism: Tennessee has stars
For all the negatives that came out of last night’s overtime win against Appalachian State, there is still room to be encouraged. Tennessee has stars and they came to play.After a muffed punt, CB Cameron Sutton did his best to show that his huge 2014 grade was the norm as he made plays all over the field, including a beautiful interception off quarterback Taylor Lamb. Barnett did his usual fine work in the run game and as a pass-rusher, while linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin was the key cog in the defense before his night ended prematurely due to a targeting penalty.
Offensively, Hurd and Kamara are still one of the best one-two punches in the nation at running back, while former top recruit WR Josh Malone may just live up to the hype after he caught two passes for 81 yards including a 67-yard touchdown.
While Vols fans may have had a difficult time watching last night’s game, be encouraged that the team has stars sprinkled throughout the roster and they’re capable of making up for deficiencies in other areas. We will either look back on this game as an indicator of a disappointing season for the Vols, or perhaps a necessary win in a quest for something much bigger. If it’s the latter, it will be up to the best players to carry the team on a weekly basis as weaknesses get sorted out.