KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Coach Butch Jones and his staff have the benefit of slow-motion and multiple camera replays during film review of Tennessee’s 20-13 overtime win against Appalachian State on Thursday night.
But no matter what angle you view it from, the No. 9-ranked Vols’ win was ugly.
Tennessee has a week to regroup before heading to play Virginia Tech at 8 p.m. on Sept. 10 in the “Battle of Bristol” at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Here are position-by-position grades of Tennessee’s win over the Sun Belt Conference Mountaineers:
What do you get when you take the run element out of Josh Dobbs’ game?
A very ordinary quarterback and a Tennessee offense that bears no resemblance to a championship contender. Hopefully Dobbs’ focus is on wining games and not trying to prove any points about his passing ability. The game plan needs to deploy him as a dual-threat, or not at all.
RUNNING BACKS (C-)
Jalen Hurd ran timid and lacked burst, and he fumbled the ball and missed on a blitz pickup that led to a fourth-quarter sack. It was not the sort of performance anyone would have expected from Hurd, who wore a green jersey throughout fall camp so that he could stay “fresh.”
Alvin Kamara (six carries, 21 yards) and John Kelly need more work until Hurd is hungry enough to handle the load.
RECEIVERS & TIGHT ENDS (B+)
No dropped passes, and some great grabs by Josh Malone, Preston Williams and tight end Ethan Wolf. Jauan Jennings even got into the lineup for a catch that failed to yield any yards. The Vols receivers also looked adequate blocking on the perimeter.
OFFENSIVE LINE (D-)
This unit is the team’s biggest concern and has been from their sluggish first day of fall camp. Center Coleman Thomas had a false start, holding call and high snap that led to a costly fumble. Drew Richmond gave up a sack, Brett Kendrick had a hold and Jason Robertson yielded a fourth quarter sack. A poor and uninspiring performance.
DEFENSIVE LINE (C+)
Merely adequate, particularly at defensive tackle where the Vols failed to get any sort of push or consistent gap control.
Too many times, App State backs found cutback lanes and ran through arm tackles. Khalil McKenzie got pushed around when subbing in for starters Danny O’Brien and Kendal Vickers. Jonathan Kongbo was strong but slow off the snap. Derek Barnett shined with seven tackles including a stop behind the line.
Tennessee missed captain Jalen Reeves-Maybin after his targeting ejection a great deal. Darrin Kirkland Jr. blew a gap assignment that led to a 20-yard run. Cortez McDowell had nine stops but missed on other tackles. Kenny Bynum was a non-factor to the extent the Vols ultimately shifted to a 4-2-5 look even with Appy State running. Disappointing opener for this group.
Tennessee defensive backs were strong in run support and gave up very little in the pass game. Most all of Appy State’s passing yardage game via the shovel pass or check downs to the backs. Cam Sutton’s diving interception could be looked back on as a season saver. Todd Kelly Jr. was solid with five tackles and great coverage, and Micah Abernathy sealed the win with his pass break-up.
SPECIAL TEAMS (C-)
Sutton’s fumbled punt set up Appalachian State’s opening score, as the Mountaineers took over at the UT 36 — a backbreaker. That negated strong punting from Trevor Daniel (49.2-yard average) and clutch kicking by Aaron Medley (makes of 22, 39). Evan Berry had a nice 41-yard kick return. The Reeves-Maybin targeting call was costly, as was Nigel Warrior’s block in the back on a punt return.
The plus is for the halftime adjustments and finding a way to win despite one of the worst home-opening performances in Tennessee football history. UT ran the ball on 21 of 29 first-down plays and averaged 1.4 yards per carry.
Jones stressed coming out fast, and he pampered his team in fall camp to make sure it stayed fresh. Still, the players did not respond as well as they should for this player-friendly coach.
Tennessee dodged a dangerous opponent in the season opener and discovered it has some egos to manage in the clubhouse. Because of the nature of the game, the Vols’ players likely will realize they need to play their roles moving forward or the team will not reach its goals.
The “feel-good” about the team’s top 10 ranking is over, and just as Jones said, it turned out not to mean anything. UT heads to play Virginia Tech with “soft” and “fragile” tags attached to the Team 120 image. The Hokies will provide a rugged challenge and give the Vols a chance to shake those labels.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee football for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.