There are three things Tennessee coach Butch Jones looks for in a struggling program to see if they’ve given up. When it comes to his team, which has started the 2015 season 2-3 after one-possession losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas, the third-year Vols head coach isn’t concerned it's spiraling from a decline into despair.
“First is turnover margin,” he said. “We are taking care of the football offensively. We are taking the football away defensively, but we still need to create more turnovers.”
The Vols average nearly less than one turnover a game and have a +4 turnover margin on the season, good for No. 28 nationally.
“You look at the performance of our special teams,” Jones said. “I think the special teams tell you the dynamics of a football team. Right now, we are excelling in the game of special teams.”
This area has been Tennessee’s shining star in 2015, and if Jones judges competitive edge partly by special teams play, he should definitely be encouraged by this unit’s play. The Vols lead the NCAA in kickoff return average at 37.9 yards per return, and punter Trevor Daniel is tops in the SEC in net punting at 42.6 yards. Tennessee is also one of just five teams with both a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown on the season. The only facet in which the Vols haven't been near perfect on special teams is in field goals, where Aaron Medley has missed three of his 17 attempts.
“Then, you look at our penalties,” Jones said. “We have been a disciplined football team.”
Tennessee is currently No. 17 overall in penalties per game, averaging just five flags a contest.
But despite those key areas of success, Tennessee has monumental work to do to climb out of its current hole. The Vols have struggled mightily to pass the ball this season, ranking No. 95 in the country in passing offense at 192 yards a game. The defense is currently last in the SEC in yards allowed per game at 414 and have given up the most explosive plays of more than 30, 40 and 50 yards of any other team in the conference.
“We are going to rely on these experiences. It's going to make us better, but we do have to own it. It's going to make us better. It starts with me, first and foremost, and then we have to go and get better and change it,” Jones said.
“In these times, you really find out who is with you and who is against you. You just write it down, put it in your back pocket and file it away for future reference. We are going to be fine. We have a resilient group of kids. We are going to continue to make progress and move forward."
Meat in the middle
The middle of Tennessee’s defensive line against Arkansas was, at times, 700-plus combined pounds of young muscle. Freshmen tackles Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie combined for ten total tackles in extended roles against Arkansas and both have seen their snaps steadily increase as the season progresses.
Tuttle blocked a field goal to keep the Razorbacks off the board in the third quarter and ended the night with five tackles of his own in the 24-20 loss.
"I was very encouraged,” Jones said. “I thought Shy played the best game he's played all year. When you see 300-plus pounds, I thought his effort was outstanding. He was able to win some one-on-one matchups in the pass protection area against the offensive linemen.
McKenzie showed flashes of why he was the No. 1 overall recruit in last year’s class, getting a major push at times on Arkansas’ aggressive offensive line and sometimes taking on double teams in the process.
“I thought Kahlil did some very good things of holding his gap and being active,” Jones said. “When we watched the film, we were very, very encouraged with those two individuals. They did a very, very good job."
Smokey grey debut
The third-year Vols head coach also announced the debut of the alternate uniforms NIKE calls “smokey grey", which will be worn against Georgia Saturday.
The all-gray attire comes complete with a smokey grey helmet, with a Smoky Mountain design that backdrops the traditional Power T logo.
“As of right now, if we do get all of the helmets in, I want to announce that it will be a smokey grey game, so we will debut our smokey grey uniforms, which does not help you win a football game, but I know everyone has been looking forward to that and starting this week off today," Jones said.
Wide receiver Marquez North did not dress for Saturday’s game against Arkansas after being a game-time decision. North experienced back stiffness prior kickoff and was held out. Fellow receiver Pig Howard suffered a concussion against Western Carolina, among a host of other nagging injuries, which has prevented him from playing.
“He had an ankle, an elbow and a concussion that occurred in the Western Carolina game,” Jones said. “He is still suffering the effects of the concussion. He did not pass his imPACT test, his concussion test last week, so that is why you have not seen him."
Offensive guard Dylan Wiesman went down with a foot injury against Arkansas, but the coaching staff expects Wiesman back in practice this week as the Vols prepare to take on Georgia at home.
“We got great news,” Jones said. “It is not a high ankle sprain. It is just in his foot, so he will be available for practice.”Freshman defensive lineman Kyle Phillips has been ruled out for Saturday's game.
Butch Jones addresses rumors
Jones addressed recent rumors about an alleged "physical altercation" involving him and a player. The third-year Vols coach called the claim "absolutely ridiculous."