KNOXVILLE — Adversity has been a constant companion to Tennessee early this season.
That hasn’t surprised first-year head coach Butch Jones. It’s nearly expected when you field 14 freshmen every Saturday.
Adversity will certainly present itself on Saturday as the Vols host sixth-ranked Georgia at 3:30 p.m. ET.
“I think we all know what we’re up against,” Jones said.
Jones has said it again and again this season: this team has no room for error. They need to overachieve. It’s the only way to win. The same holds true this weekend, especially with depth issues and sloppy play beginning to surface.
“Right now we have some major depth issues and I think it’s starting to show itself,” Jones said. “This football team is understanding what it is to compete for 60 minutes. It is a 60-minute game. I spoke to our team about this, there is a different between playing the game and competing. We are searching for competitive greatness. High achievement takes place in the framework of high expectations.”
The Vols are tasked with slowing a potent Bulldogs offense that torches teams for 554 yards per game. Eye discipline and the young secondary will be put to the test against UGA quarterback Aaron Murray, who Jones openly tabs a “Sunday player.”
The last time Tennessee downed Georgia was in 2009, which is the same year the Vols last topped a ranked opponent.
Center James Stone was a senior in high school. He’s open in saying the Vols will be playing angry and driven on Saturday afternoon. Stone knows time is running out.
“It just gives you that much more motivation,” Stone said. “It gives you an added edge. We only have so many more opportunities left. I would mean a lot to this team.”
Not freeing the frosh
With Justin Worley and the Tennessee offense struggling, fans continue to call for a true freshman quarterback to see the field.
Butch Jones hasn’t budged. And he won’t anytime soon.
Jones maintained his stance that neither young gunslinger is ready, but offered perhaps his most honest answer on the topic all season.
“I see these kids everyday. I’m in meetings with them everyday. I watch their demeanor in pregame warm-ups. It’s one thing when you go into a game and you say I may play and if we get ahead, if something happens, no pressure,” Jones said. “Again, these are 17-, 18-year old young adults who could be playing in front of 100,000 people on national television against some great defenses. As much as everyone wants to see them, it’s my job and it’s my responsibility to them, to their parents, and to our football program to not put them in, if given that luxury, until they’re ready. In our professional opinion right now, they haven’t been ready. Will that change this week? It may change based on how they handle practice.”
By many measurements, Saturday is the perfect opportunity to unveil the heavily debated Smokey gray uniforms.
The Vols play the sixth-ranked Bulldogs on national television. Jones wants to spark extra energy in both the crowd and in his players.
Saturday also marks a monumental recruiting weekend for Tennessee. Hoards of top-ranked prospects – including Dewayne Hendrix, Josh Malone, Braxton Berrios and more – will be on hand.
But Jones offered a more simple explanation on his decision to unveil the new garb.
“I think it was just time,” Jones said. “I think it is something that our fan base has been waiting for. I know our players have been looking forward to wearing them.”
Center James Stone knows the jerseys won’t impact Saturday’s final score, but he’s looking forward to the momentum boost.
“You just use them for extra juice. You use them to motivate guys. Like you said, it’s all about how we play, it’s not about what we wear,” Stone said. “It’s something cool, it’s something fun, it’s just something of an incentive to play as hard as you can.”
Having a day
Butch Jones was naturally a tad disappointed after his team failed to finish off South Alabama on Saturday.
But as the first-year coach has proven game after game, he likes to focus on the positives. Jones even went as far to dub his press conference “positive Monday.”
With a slight grin frozen on his face, Jones listed a handful of players who he thought played the best games of their careers against the Jags.
The list included defensive end Corey Miller, running back Rajion Neal, nickelback JaRon Toney and wideout Jason Croom.
Miller was the first player Jones named.
“I thought we had some individuals really give tremendous effort, the first individual that comes to mind is Corey Miller I thought he played his best, most complete game since we have been here, his effort was outstanding,” Jones said. “We have to be high achievers, we have to be overachievers.”
Miller headed a pass rush that also drew praises from the first-year headman. The senior defensive end racked-up four solo tackles, including a sack that resulted in a loss of 8 yards.
But Miller’s biggest play of the afternoon didn’t come in the form of a sack, a quarterback hurry or well-executed contain assignment.
It was a special teams effort. One that may have saved the day.
A Michael Palardy 52-yard field goal attempt sputtered off the hand of holder Tyler Drummer in the fourth quarter. South Alabama corralled the loose ball and raced down the sideline, as did Miller.
Miller dragged down the ball carrier at Tennessee’s 24-yard line. The Jags went on to miss a 41-yard field goal. Miller’s hustle turned a potential game-tying touchdown into nothing more than time ran off the clock.
“You treat every play as though it’s going to be a game winning play. Who would’ve known? I thought one of the plays of the game was on the field goal that went wrong. They do a great job of advancing it and the effort by Corey Miller to get the ball carrier down is outstanding,” Jones said. “They came away with zero points. They missed a field goal. Little did Corey Miller know before the start of that play, if somebody would’ve said, “Hey, run that guy down, this is going to be the difference between winning and losing.” That’s the mindset that we’re building.”
JaRon Toney was called on in the second half after starting nickelback Devaun Swafford struggled.
The redshirt junior tallied eight tackles and earned the starting nickel spot in Tennessee’s most recent depth chart.
“(Toney) came in and was with Coach Martinez all week wanting extra film study, preparing,” Jones said. “We have been on him exceptionally hard and we thought he played his best football to date, he really helped us with win that football game.”
Neal’s inclusion on the list of Saturday’s top performers was a no-brainer. The senior scoured South Alabama’s defense for 169 rushing yards, the most by a Tennessee tailback since 2009.
Redshirt freshman wideout Croom has received mixed reviews all season. He racked up three catches for 50 yards on Saturday – his best showing by far.
Corners will be contested
Cameron Sutton is one of many freshmen prematurely thrown into the waters of big time college football.
But game after game, Sutton’s proven he can constantly stay afloat.
Sutton played a career-high 73 snaps on Saturday.
“Being freshmen, you’re going to get challenged and what I think you see in Cam Sutton is a high level of consistency. Every single day he’s the same person. He’s never too high, he’s never low,” Jones said. “You know the way his total approach to practice and to the games, he’s mature beyond his age and he’s an individual who has earned the right to play but he’s also an individual who is playing out of necessity and he’s taking the most of his opportunity.”
Saturday’s contest against Georgia will be Sutton’s biggest challenge of the year. He’ll be tested. Sutton knows it. As does Jones.
Sutton is tasked with slowing a Bulldogs passing attack that more than doubles Tennessee in passing yards per game. And Sutton will likely have to do it without the help of cornerbacks Michael Williams and Riyahd Jones, unless the pair of defensive backs have an excellent week of preparation to make up for lost time.
“This past Saturday, Michael (Williams) and Riyahd (Jones) weren’t ready yet. They just started practice,” Jones said. “It takes time to get your skill set back, to get your conditioning levels back, your football endurance, but also your mentality, your functional intelligence. Football’s a game that’s played at high speed with quick snap decisions that have to be made.”