Tennessee will never regain full depth-chart strength this season, given the ample amount of injuries it has sustained.
A couple of its brightest stars re-entered the starting lineup Saturday, though, offering hope that the Vols may have enough to retake the East lead and reclaim its preseason predicted spot in the SEC Championship in Atlanta, should division-leading Florida stumble once more.
Running back Alvin Kamara returned from a knee injury to rush for a season-high 128 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries in a 49-36 win over Kentucky. Kamara missed the South Carolina and Tennessee Tech games.
His ground productivity Saturday, grouped with that of quarterback Joshua Dobbs (147 yards rushing, two touchdowns) and running back John Kelly (94 yards), reignited a Tennessee offense that was comatose in losses to against Alabama and South Carolina.
The Vols (7-3, 3-3 SEC) need it to continue. They have regular-season games remaining against SEC foes Missouri and Vanderbilt.
“We got unfinished business," Kamara said. “Season’s not over. I made it my goal that if I can come back, I was gonna come back. So, here I am.”
Added Kamara, the redshirt junior: “Being able to get back today, it feels great. The knee brace, of course I don’t like it. But I have to protect my knee. I’ll be wearing it (the rest of the season). I just asked, when I went in the training room, when I could take it off. I didn’t get no response.”
Senior defensive back Cameron Sutton (ankle) also returned from the injured list, having missed the previous six games. He recorded two first-half pass breakups to set the Tennessee career mark.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones praised both Kamara and Sutton after the game for putting the team first, knowing both will likely be involved with the NFL Draft come spring.
“They wanted to play. They basically willed themselves to getting back healthy,” said Jones. “And I thought it really sparked our football team.”
Added Jones: “These individuals could have easily sat out and said, ‘I’m done,’ and get ready for the NFL and what’s next. But they wanted to be a part of this football team and help us win.”
Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. returned to the defense Oct. 29 at South Carolina after a five-game injury hiatus. Defensive back Malik Foreman made four tackles and a broke up a pass Saturday. He had missed the previous three games.
So Tennessee is getting healthier – on paper. They still have much work to do to regain form defensively.
The Wildcats (5-5, 4-4) took Tennessee’s defense to task, rushing for 443 yards – the most Kentucky has ever rushed for against an SEC opponent.
Five Kentucky players rushed for 72 yards or more. Stanley Williams ran for a team-high 127. Quarterback Stephen Johnson started it all, taking Kentucky’s first play of the day 75 yards to the Tennessee 10, not even 2 minutes into the game.
Even an out-dated Wildcat formation featuring freshman running back Benjamin Snell (79 yards rushing) made the Vols look out of sorts.
Tennessee provided some resistance in the red zone and forced three field goals, though. Kentucky was 12-for-29 passing.
Defensive end Corey Vereen had five tackles and a pair of sacks. And, little-used sophomore defensive back Stephen Griffin entered for an injured Todd Kelly Jr. in the third quarter and forced a Kentucky fumble. Kamara cashed the turnover in for points with a 17-year touchdown run. That put Tennessee ahead 35-16 with 2:23 left in the third quarter.
A Dobbs 45-yard touchdown run and a Kamara 29-yard touchdown run bumped Tennessee’s lead to 49-22 midway through the fourth. Kentucky’s running attack scored three fourth-quarter touchdown runs. Two came in the final four minutes.
All told, Tennessee and Kentucky combined for 1,234 yards of offense Saturday. Dobbs passed for 223 yards and three scores, prompting Kentucky coach Mark Stoops to say after the game: “I’m glad we don’t have to see him anymore. He’s a senior, right?”
But Tennessee standout junior defensive end Derek Barnett, who had one sack to move him within two of tying Reggie White’s career sack record (32), was none too pleased with happened Saturday on his side of the ball.
He and Vereen said Saturday’s defensive showing was frustrating.
It was an effort Barnett wants corrected before next week’s 3:30 p.m. (TV: CBS) home game against Missouri. After all, one more unexpected loss by Tennessee eliminates the Vols from any chance at winning the SEC East.
“We can’t play like that no more," Barnett said.
“We will go back and watch film,” he added. “I think just a lot of gap integrity issues (need fixing). Just stay in your gap. It is nothing they’re doing. It’s just things we are messing up on.”