Special thanks to Jimmy Hyams, the afternoon host on The Sports Animal (WNML AM-FM) in Knoxville, Tenn., for this week’s opponent Q-and-A.
Q: How would you assess the Vols’ performances against Oklahoma and Georgia, two other ranked teams they’ve faced on the road?
A: “I thought Tennessee played pretty well in both, especially at Georgia. The Vols couldn’t protect QB Justin Worley at Oklahoma — he was hit over 20 times. But UT was throwing near the end zone in the fourth quarter down by 17 when Oklahoma returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown to put the game away.
At Georgia, Tennessee, in spite of a young OL, played its best game of the season and had a chance to win in the fourth quarter. A big difference in this UT team is the defense is much improved; it doesn’t miss as many tackles and it doesn’t have as many missed assignments. A coach told me yesterday UT had some games with 25-30 missed assignments last year, but that number is 8-9 this year.”
Q: This team is playing a lot of freshmen. How are they different than they were in late August?
“Several freshmen have made a huge difference. The offense is much better when TE Ethan Wolf is in the game. He’s a rare combo TE and will be a weapon as he continues to develop. Todd Kelly Jr — one of six legacy players on the team — has made 2 interceptions and is a solid tackler. He’s got a great football IQ. Derek Barnett is the first DE to ever start as a true freshman at Tennessee. He seems to make more big plays with each game. Wolf is also the first true freshman to start at TE in UT history. Kelly, Wolf and Barnett have a chance to become All-SEC players.
Q: Tennessee’s pass defense numbers are strong. What do you think of their secondary play?
A: “Much improved. It’s one reason the Vols rank among the nation’s top five in third-down defense. The secondary is faster and more athletic. It has also been in the same system for a second year in a row. That’s unusual around here, where coaches change like musical chairs.”
Q: The Vols have struggled to protect Justin Worley. What do they have to do to change that this week?
“Pray. This is the worst OL I’ve seen in 30 years of covering Tennessee football. The Vols are starting two true freshmen on the right side, the starting LT is out for the year with a torn ACL, the current LT is really a RG. UT entered this season with 6 career starts among the OL and not a single starter returned – the only team in Division I that could say that. To make matters worse, Derek Dooley didn’t sign an OL in 2012 and UT is paying for that mistake. UT must have some success on the ground and stay out of third and long situations, or it will be a long day for Worley against the Rebels.”
Q: What was the state of the program when Butch Jones arrived?
A: “Poor. In the past 20 or so months, UT has 66 new players and 66 players that have left the program – that includes walk-ons. That’s a lot of attrition and a lot of newness – not a good recipe for success in the SEC. This isn’t just a 3-year rebuilding project – it might be a 5-year rebuilding project.”
Q: What has enabled him to recruit so effectively, and what do you see for this team next year?
A: “Jones is a workaholic in recruiting. He also hired about 5 assistants with SEC or ACC recruiting experience, and that has helped. Jones has sold recruits on returning UT to power status and he and his staff have built solid relationships with players, parents and high school coaches. Some say he was fortunate to have six legacy players available for the 2014 class, but he had a lot of ground to make up because none of those guys would have come to UT under the former regime. Jones has done a terrific job recruiting, but if UT doesn’t get solid QB play next year and if the OL doesn’t make dramatic improvement, the Vols might be looking at a 6-6 record in 2015. And Tennessee is in the midst of its longest drought in program history without an SEC Championship.”