Getting to Know Vols with Inside Tennessee

To bring Iowa fans up to speed on TaxSlayer Bowl opponent, HI has enlisted the help of Inside Tennessee Publisher Randy Moore. Let a Vols expert familiarize you with what your team is facing on Jan. 2 in Jacksonville.

After losing three of its last four games of the regular season, Iowa looks to regroup this month for its TaxSlayer Bowl meeting with Tennessee of the SEC. The Hawkeyes are looking to match last year's eight-win total.

The Volunteers are in their second season of Butch Jones Era and in their first postseason game since 2010. They'll be motivated to finish the season with a winning record after splitting 12 games this fall.

The network is fortunate to have publishers around the country running sites like ours for other schools. We can lean on them for keen insight into the opponent.

Randy Moore at Inside Tennessee is one of those people. HI asked him to answer a series of questions about the Vols and here are his responses:

1. Butch Jones came to Knoxville with high expectations. How do the fans feel about the job he's done to this point and where the program is headed?

Randy Moore, Inside Tennessee: Most Tennessee fans are very happy with the job Butch Jones has done, mainly because he has dramatically improved the recruiting. The Vols’ overall talent level between 2009 and 2013 was horrible. Jones brought in a top-five signing class this year, and a bunch of those freshmen wound up starting. Tennessee lost at home to a Florida team it should’ve beaten but defeated a South Carolina team it shouldn’t have on the road. Despite records of 5-7 and 6-6 in Jones’ first two years, most of the fans are excited about the future because it appears Tennessee will sign another top-10 class for 2015.

2. What were the high and low points of this Vols season and why?

RM: The home loss to a mediocre Florida team was clearly the low point. Tennessee fans dressed by section so that Neyland Stadium resembled a giant orange-and-white checkerboard. The crowd was electric, certain Tennessee would snap its nine-game losing streak against the Gators. Instead, the Vols played an awful game, let Florida hang around, and the Gators scored 10 fourth-quarter points to win 10-9. The season’s high point was the South Carolina game. Down 42-28 with five minutes left in Columbia, Tennessee scored two touchdowns to send the game into overtime, then won it 45-42 with a field goal.

3. From the outside, it appears that Tennessee has found more success with Joshua Dobbs at quarterback than it had with Justin Worley there. How much credit does Dobbs deserve in the Vols rallying for a bowl berth?

RM: Dobbs deserves a bunch of the credit. Worley is a good passer but immobile, and Tennessee’s patchwork offensive line simply couldn’t protect him. Worley was sacked 29 times through the first seven games, whereas Dobbs was sacked just 12 times over the final five games. Dobbs also is a much better fit for Tennessee’s zone-read offense, providing a running threat at the quarterback position that Worley did not.

4. What are the strength and weakness of Dobbs?

RM: Dobbs is a very mobile quarterback. He was Tennessee’s leading rusher against Alabama (19 carries, 75 yards) and South Carolina (24 carries, 166 yards). He finished the season with a 4.3 yards-per-carry average and a team-high six rushing touchdowns. His weakness is inconsistency throwing the ball. He was so erratic in preseason that he was headed for a redshirt year until Worley was lost for the season in Game 7. Dobbs had a great game throwing the ball against Kentucky (19 of 27 for 297 yards and 3 TDs) but was terrible in the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt (11 of 20 for 92 yards with 2 interceptions). He has a strong arm but not always an accurate arm.

5. Jalen Hurd put together some really good games this season, most notably on the road at Georgia and South Carolina. He looks to be a threat running and receiving. Can you describe his strengths as a running back and what teams have done to neutralize him?

RM: Hurd is a tall guy (6-feet-3, 227 pounds) who runs a little upright but shows excellent power and surprising speed. He has struggled with a shoulder injury at times but runs very hard when healthy. Basically, he is effective when Tennessee’s offensive line isn’t overmatched. Hurd ran for just 39 yards against Florida, 40 each against Alabama and Missouri – three teams whose defensive fronts dominated Tennessee’s offensive line. Against teams with average or worse defensive fronts – Georgia (119 yards), South Carolina (125) and Kentucky (118) – Hurd was very effective. He carried just five times for 21 yards in the regular-season finale at Vanderbilt due to injury but should be close to 100 percent for the bowl game against Iowa.

6. I've noticed that Tennessee announced the transfer of three freshmen, two of which, Daniel Helm and Dewayne Hendrix, Iowa pursued pretty hard. Are their exits part of normal attrition or a reason for concern for the Vols?

RM: Both players were beaten out by fellow freshmen – Hendrix by Derek Barnett and Helm by Ethan Wolf. Both Helm and Hendrix were four-star recruits who expected to play significant roles as freshmen, if not start. Losing players of their caliber is certainly a concern but it may be simply a case of two heralded recruits believing they’ll make bigger and faster impact at another school.

7. Playing off the previous question, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz has mentioned a few times since this bowl match-up was announced that Tennessee has recruited really well under Butch Jones. What is working so well for this staff in attracting top players to Knoxville in the competitive SEC?

RM: Jones was fortunate in that 2014 proved to be the “legacy class.” Five of his signees are sons of former Vol football players. Evan and Elliott Berry are the twin sons of former Vol James Berry, Neiko Creamer is the son of Andre Creamer, Todd Kelly Jr. is the son of Todd Sr., and Dillon Bates is the son of Bill Bates. In addition, Vic Wharton is the nephew of former Vol basketball star Brandon Wharton. Still, Jones and his assistants managed to reel in a bunch of four-stars who had no blood ties to Tennessee in that 2014 class. I think this staff’s recruiting success can be tied to (1) its high-energy approach to coaching and recruiting, (2) the likelihood of immediate playing time, (3) the chance to rebuild a tradition-rich program and (4) the opportunity to play in the high-profile SEC.

8. The Hawkeyes have been susceptible on the edges of their defense this season. How can Tennessee exploit this area?

RM: Hurd has surprising speed for a 227-pounder. He generally runs inside but can bounce a play outside and do some damage on the perimeter. Dobbs really hurt several teams who focused on Hurd by faking the inside handoff, then keeping around end for nice gains. Slot receiver Alton Howard averaged 5.5 yards per carry running jet sweeps, so he can stretch a defense horizontally, as well.

9. What kind of player is Alton Howard and how does he pressure a defense?

RM: “Pig” (he got the nickname as a chubby child) might be Tennessee’s fastest player. He’s only 5-feet-8 and 187 pounds but he’s tough as nails and very athletic. He’s no home-run threat (11.3 yards per reception and just one touchdown all season) but he catches the ball over the middle and runs well after the catch. He led the Vols with 52 receptions and became the “go-to receiver” once Dobbs took over at quarterback.

10. Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett both recorded double figures in sacks this season. How good are they and what allows them to get to the opposing quarterback so well?

RM: Maggitt and Barnett are probably the best pass-rush tandem at Tennessee since Leonard Little and Jonathan Brown in 1996 and ’97. Maggitt is an outside linebacker who split time between linebacker and rush end this fall. As a hybrid, he brings linebacker speed to the end position. Barnett is a true freshman who shocked everyone with his athleticism and his relentless approach. Defensive line coach Steve Stripling has produced outstanding pass rushers everywhere he’s been, so he probably deserves a lot of credit for the sack totals put up by Maggitt (11) and Barnett (10).

11. Overall, besides pressure on the signal caller, what do the Vols do well on defense?

RM: Tennessee ranked among the NCAA leaders in third-down conversion defense for about half the season, then struggled some in November. The Vols don’t substitute a lot, so fatigue was a factor. Another factor was the suspension of middle linebacker A.J. Johnson in connection with a sexual-assault allegation. He recorded 101 tackles in 10 games prior to the suspension. Tennessee’s run defense was nowhere near as stout without him, and it appears he will not be available for the bowl game.

12. Special teams have hurt Iowa at times this season. What are the strengths of the Tennessee return teams and specialists?

RM: Tennessee poses no threat on punt returns but Evan Berry (Eric’s younger brother) has really injected new life into the kickoff-return game since replacing injured senior Devrin Young at midseason. Berry is averaging 29.5 yards on 13 returns, and has been one step from “taking one to the house” on three or four occasions. Freshman kicker Aaron Medley has been surprisingly consistent for a rookie, hitting 19 of 25 field-goal attempts, including 18 of 19 from inside 40 yards. Senior punter Matt Darr averaged 42.5 yards and boomed several 50-yarders in clutch situations when Tennessee needed to flip the field.

13. If you had to name one thing the Vols could do to give them the best chance to win, regardless of the opponent, what would it be?

RM: Tennessee must get a quality performance from Dobbs, both throwing the ball and running it. He managed just 13 rushing yards on 17 carries against Missouri, and Tennessee lost. He managed just 92 passing yards against a really bad Vanderbilt team, and Tennessee barely won that game. When Dobbs is effective running and throwing, the Vols pose real problems. When he struggles in either area, Tennessee’s offense falls flat.

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