Tennessee is coming off of a 50-16 home win over Kentucky, while Missouri kept their division title hopes alive last week with a 34-27 road win over Texas A&M.
“Tennessee is a very good football team,” said Missouri head Coach Gary Pinkel. “They’re playing well. They’ve had two back-to-back big wins for them. (Coach Jones) is doing a great job of building that football program.”
In recent weeks, Tennessee has gained momentum with back-to-back wins over SEC East Division rivals. The two-game Tennessee win streak has coincided with, and is closely associated with, the insertion into the starting line-up of 6’3” 216-pound sophomore QB Josh Dobbs. Dobbs has played very well, and his play has provided a late-season spark for a young Tennessee team.
Earlier this week, Tennessee Head Coach Butch Jones said that Dobbs is making good decisions with the football, and is doing a good job of managing the game.
“(Our expectations for Dobbs) is for him to take care of the football and make good decisions, manage the game,” explained Coach Jones, talking about his new QB. “He’s done an extraordinary job with that. He’s making good decisions with the football. He’s distributing the ball. That’s very, very important. And, he’s commanding the line of scrimmage……………………………………….. And also his leadership continues to grow and be elevated, as well.”
After playing in 6 games for the Vols a year ago, including his first career start at Missouri, where the Tigers beat Tennessee 31-3, Dobbs began the season as the Vols’ third-string QB. He made his 2014 season debut four weeks ago when he came in on the third series at Alabama. Since then, he’s 61-99-2 (62%) for 790 yards (8.0 yards/attempt) and 7 TDs (147.94 passer efficiency rating) through the air, and he’s also rushed for 289 yards and 4 TDs on 53 carries (5.5 yards/carry). Two weeks ago, Dobbs was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week.
“He’s a different player (than a year ago),” explained Coach Pinkel, speaking of Dobbs. “He’s playing at a whole different level. He has played really well. He brings to the table for their offense the ability to run the football. They use him in their running scheme to run the football. He’s throwing the ball well. He’s got a tremendous amount of poise back there. They’ve got a good offensive line. They’re competing at a very high level, and I think you have to point at him (Dobbs) and say he’s the reason why. If the quarterback plays well, then everyone else plays a little better.”
This season, Tennessee has played 23 true freshmen, including 10 true freshmen who have started for the Vols. But at this juncture of the season, they’re no longer playing like wide-eyed newcomers. And against Missouri, 6’4” 240-pound true freshman LB Jakob Johnson will likely get his first start of the season.
Johnson will likely be replacing a Volunteer legend in the starting line-up, as earlier this week, it was announced by the Tennessee Athletic Department that 6’2” 245-pound senior LB A.J. Johnson has been suspended indefinitely following his alleged involvement in an ongoing investigation into an alleged sexual assault.
The impact of the potential loss of Johnson cannot be overstated. With 101 total tackles on the season, the returning consensus 2013 All-SEC First-Team selection, and 2014 Butkus Award Semifinalist, is the current leader in the conference, and is currently the second-leading tackler in school history. He was on track to lead Tennessee in tackles for the third straight season.
Johnson is not the only Tennessee player who will likely miss the Missouri game. Also suspended along with Johnson is 5’11” 177-pound sophomore corner Michael Williams. He’s listed second on the Tennessee Depth Chart.
Ejected in the 2nd half last week for targeting, Tennessee’s second-leading tackler, 6’0” 209-pound junior starting safety Brian Randolph, will miss the 1st half of the Missouri game. In his stead, 6’0” 203-pound true freshman Todd Kelly will make the start.
On Tuesday, Coach Jones indicated that starting center Mack Crowder is “doubtful for the (Missouri) game” with what he had described as a “high ankle sprain” and knee sprain.
And, if 5’11” 194-pound true freshman second-string tailback Derrell Scott is able to play against Missouri, he’ll do so with a cast on his broken hand.
Yet, despite being very, very young, and being short-handed for this week, Tennessee is very, very talented. And, the emergence of Dobbs at the QB position makes them very, very formidable.
In two of Tennessee’s last three games, Dobbs has been the Vols’ leading rusher, as well as the triggerman in their spread offensive attack. He’s been making good decisions in executing their zone-read running plays, and he’s also been effective scrambling out of the pocket.
And, he’s surrounded by plenty of talented playmakers, including 6’3” 227-pound true freshman tailback Jalen Hurd. On the season, Hurd has rushed for 716 yards and 3 TDs on 158 carries (4.5 yards/carry). He’s also the Vols’ third-leading receiver with 27 receptions for 177 yards and 2 TDs.
At the wide-receiver position, Dobbs has 6’4” 221-pound sophomore Marquez North (30 receptions, 320 yards, 4 TDs), 5’8” 187-pound junior Alton “Pig” Howard (39 receptions, 444 yards, 1 TD), 6’3” 204-pound true freshman Josh Malone (22 receptions, 227 yards, 1 TD), 6’3” 183-pound junior Von Pearson (25 receptions, 264 yards, 4 TDs), and 6’5” 243-pound sophomore Jason Croom (18 receptions, 295 yards, 3 TDs).
The Vols have utilized their tight ends in the passing game, as well, including a pair of true freshmen in 6’5” 240-pound Ethan Wolf (21 receptions, 203 yards), and 6’4” 240-pound Daniel Helm (5 receptions, 38 yards). And a third tight end, 6’4” 238-pound junior Alex Ellis, has 5 receptions for 84 yards this season.
It looks like Crowder will be out. Still, Tennessee is very talented up front. They’ll average about 6’3” and 303 pounds across their offensive line.
Along the Tennessee defensive line, they’re not just young. They have real good size on the outside, but they’re relatively undersized on the inside. Their defensive tackles average 6’3” and 285 pounds.
Last week, Tennessee’s 6’3” 267-pound true freshman DE Derek Barnett was named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week. Barnett has quickly become the Vols’ best defensive lineman. On the season, he has 56 total tackles, including 18 TFLs and 9 sacks. Of his 18 TFLs, 15 of them have come in his last 6 games. Coach Jones said that Barnett is “mature beyond his years”.
Of course, Missouri was one of the many schools that had recruited Barnett.
“He’s a very, very talented player,” said Coach Pinkel, speaking of Barnett. “He’s very, very impressive! And, we thought he’d be a very, very good player.”
Barnett’s back-up is 6’4” 275-pound true freshman Dewayne Hendrix.
With Johnson on the field, linebacker is usually a position of strength for the Vols. His replacement has played very little. The other two starting LBs are among Tennessee’s most productive players. That includes 6’1” 230-pound sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin, with 76 total tackles, and 6’3” 251-pound junior Curt Maggitt, with 34 tackles, 8 sacks, and 2 QB hurries. Reeves-Maybin is fast and very athletic. He’s been one of Tennessee’s better, more consistent, defenders. And, Maggitt, though listed as a SLB, often plays up on the line-of scrimmage and gets after the quarterback. Coach Jones even included Maggitt when he was talking about rushing the QB, and being “much more athletic up front”.
Kelly’s played more than Jakob Johnson, and Randolph will be back in there in the 2nd half, so that’s not nearly as big a loss as not having Johnson, but it is a disruption for the Tennessee secondary. Without Williams, who has made 5 starts this season, the Vols will likely turn to 5’11” 178-pound true freshman corner Emmanuel Mosely, who started last week at Kentucky, as their third corner. Earlier this week, Coach Jones said that Mosely has been getting better.
The Vols’ starting corners are pretty good. Their best corner is another guy that Missouri recruited, 6’1” 190-pound sophomore Cameron Sutton. On the season, he has made 32 tackles, and he has 8 PBUs and 3 interceptions. He's been drawing the superior assignment. His counterpart, 5’10” 188-pound senior corner Justin Coleman, has made 34 tackles, and has 3 PBUs and 3 interceptions.
The other starting safety is 6’1” 215-pound junior LaDarrell McNeil. On the season, he’s made 51 tackles, and he has 2 PBUs and an INT.
Tennessee senior defensive lineman Jordan Williams said that he expects Saturday night’s contest to be a “battle”, with Tennessee fighting for a bowl bid, and Missouri needing to win out to win the division and get to Atlanta.
“The way I see it,” explained Williams. “They’re in our way to get to a bowl game. And, we’re in their way to get to the SEC Championship. It’s going to be a good game.”