Tennessee suspensions to impact quest for bowl berth against Missouri

BY foxsports • November 20, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Having to play Senior Night against Missouri on Saturday with a bowl berth on the line, Tennessee figures it's all about the next man up.

That's because their most-ballyhooed senior -- middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, the team's leading and SEC's No. 2 tackler -- will apparently be unavailable. He was suspended indefinitely after being listed as a suspect in an ongoing alleged rape and sexual assault investigation.

Also suspended and later charged was sophomore defensive back Michael Williams. The alleged rape and sexual assault of two 19-year-old women, one a Tennessee student, is alleged to have occurred at Johnson's off-campus residence early Sunday morning following the Volunteers' win last Saturday night over Kentucky.

"Obviously it is very difficult," Volunteers coach Butch Jones said of the suspensions, "but it is the situation that we are in."

That includes Tennessee (5-5, 2-4) needing to beat either the Tigers on Saturday or win at rival Vanderbilt a week later to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Win both, and the Volunteers can guarantee their first winning season since 2009.

Then again, Missouri (8-2, 5-1) is trying to defend its SEC East title and earn a return to the league championship game in Atlanta on Dec. 6. If they win Saturday and then beat visiting Arkansas the following Friday, the Tigers win the division. If they lose either game, then Georgia wins the SEC East by virtue of its win earlier over Missouri.

"Our players understand what is at stake," said Jones, whose first Tennessee team last season finished 5-7 after losing four of its last five games. "They know what they are playing for these last couple games."

The Volunteers also know who they will be playing without. In surpassing 100 tackles each of the last three seasons, Johnson has emerged as one of the best linebackers in the country. He turned down a chance last spring to enter the NFL Draft a season early to return to assist in helping rebuild the Volunteers.

"You just don't replace his production," Jones said of not having Johnson, a team captain. "So just everyone around our football team has to step up, do their job, not do any more than what is required of them. They will step up."

Like it has done all season long in so many positions, the Volunteers will again turn to a true freshman. Filling Johnson's slot will be Jakob Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound native of Stuttgart, Germany. He has played in nine games and made six tackles.

"I like his intelligence," defensive coordinator John Jancek said of Johnson, who played only one year of high school football in Jacksonville, Fla., after his family moved to the United States in 2012. "I like his size. I like a lot of the things he's been able to do in a short amount of time. It's going to be fun to see him get out there and compete and see what he can do."

Missing the first half for Tennessee will be safety Brian Randolph. The top tackler among SEC defensive backs, the junior was ejected from the Kentucky game for a targeting penalty and must sit out the first half of the following game. Also out for the game with a high ankle sprain suffered in the Kentucky game is starting senior center Mack Crowder.

Another true freshman, Todd Kelly Jr., will fill Randolph's starting slot. He has played in all 10 games, starting two, and has two interceptions. Taking over for Crowder will be sophomore Dylan Wiesman, who has played in every game this season mostly on special teams.

That covers most of the negatives for the Volunteers. The good -- uh, make that the really good -- has been the emergence of sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs to lead a potent offense that ran roughshod over Kentucky and rallied late to win in overtime at South Carolina on Nov. 1. 

Dobbs accounted for 345 yards of total offense -- 297 passing with three touchdowns and 48 rushing with another score -- against Kentucky. Over three games, the 6-foot-3, 203-pounder has 1,079 yards of total offense, including 790 passing with seven touchdowns and 289 rushing with four scores.

"It comes back to decision making," Volunteers offensive Mike Bajakian said of Dobbs' progress since taking over for injured senior Justin Worley. "He's processing information quicker and making quicker decisions. He has also improved with his accuracy. That's constantly an area of improvement for us. And he's making more plays with his feet, too." 

Also making plays with his feet has been true freshman running back Jalen Hurd. His 118 yards last Saturday gave him three 100-yard games this season, the most for a Volunteers freshman back in the same year since Jamal Lewis had seven in 1997. He has a team-high 716 rushing yards, fourth-best among SEC freshmen, with three rushing and three receiving touchdowns.

Another true freshman -- defensive end Derek Barnett (6-3, 267) -- has emerged as one of the best for his class not only in the SEC, but the country as well. He already owns the school freshman record in sacks (9), tackles for loss (18) and sacks in a game (3 twice). The sacks total is third-best among all SEC defenders, while he leads all league true freshmen in tackles (56).

"It has been very impressive," Jones said of Barnett, a product of Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy. "Just his growth and his maturity over a course of time, it is a body of work over an entire season. He brings it every day. 

" ... He has an energy level, he has a toughness about himself and a quiet confidence. We always talk about flipping the switch when you step on the football field, and he had been able to do that."