KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football coach Butch Jones has gone from the proverbial “hot seat” to “embattled” status with a pending quarterback change and the suspension of Darrell Taylor in the same week.
Jones is fighting for his job coaching the Vols (3-2, 0-2 SEC) with South Carolina (4-2, 2-2) headed to Neyland Stadium for a noon kick on Saturday (ESPN).
The Vols are looking to start the season 4-2 for what would be only the second time in the last 10 years. That’s the crazy part — a win gives Tennessee its second-best start to a season since 2007.
But the winds are howling on Rocky Top, and a loss would drop the Vols to 0-3 in SEC games this season with Alabama on deck. An 0-4 start in the league would be the Vols’ first such record since Jones’ second season, which ended at 7-6 with the first of three straight bowl wins.
The quarterback of any team is a leader by the nature of the position, so handing the keys to redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano comes with some degree of risk — especially if junior Quinten Dormady decides to leave the program.
Taylor, meanwhile, is a game-changing player and the Alpha Dog of the defense. He brings the sort of passion and energy some Tennessee upperclassmen were identified as lacking by an NFL scout before the start of the season, and he backed it up in the season-opening game.
It was Taylor who fought through a block and stopped Georgia Tech on a 2-point conversion in the Vols’ 42-41 double-overtime victory against the Yellow Jackets.
Taylor’s passion boiled over last week, however, when he got into an alteration with the offense’s designated tough guy, freshman Trey Smith. The practice fight reportedly reached a point where Smith needed stitches.
So here are the Vols heading into what has become an annual grudge match with South Carolina — a territory Tennessee was once able to recruit effectively.
The Gamecocks have sharpened their spurs over the years, a process that started with Lou Holtz, grew under Steve Spurrier, and now looks to take the next step with Will Muschamp.
The Vols’ storyline is much more desperate, as Jones looks to right the ship to the extent that Tennessee can avoid what would be its fifth different coach in 10 years.
With playmakers such as Jauan Jennings (wrist), Darrin Kirkland Jr. (knee) and Todd Kelly Jr. (knee) sidelined, the Vols are in need of playmakers.
Right now it’s John Kelly and … who else?
Jones has a battle on his hands, to be sure, and he might not have the players to beat South Carolina on Saturday.
• Taylor’s suspension opens the door for freshman Matthew Butler to see more of the field. Butler looks like a star in the making, and he’ll add the sort of passion and energy the defense needs.
• John Kelly won’t relent, regardless of how toxic the air is around him. The star running back is ready to take on as much of the load as the Vols allow, even lobbying to play cornerback on defense if needed.
• Tight end Ethan Wolf showed toughness and leadership by playing with a sprained knee last week. Whoever is at quarterback needs to look to Wolf to make plays with the young receivers struggling to execute routes and catch passes.
• Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said Austin Smith will be back this week and could be used in some pass-rush situations. Smith was the projected starting strong-side linebacker before a knee injury in August.
• When Dormady wasn’t made available for interviews last week or this week, it was a sign of what was to come. Quarterback changes are always dicey.
• Could there be some division among team members because Taylor got suspended for fighting but safety Nigel Warrior and defensive tackle Shy Tuttle did not?
• The Vols’ receivers have been inconsistent. Marquez Callaway will be back from the head/neck injury he suffered in the fourth quarter against Georgia, but it’s hard to predict how much impact he’ll have against the Gamecocks. Callaway hasn’t caught a pass in two games.
• If Guarantano starts, his mobility should enable him to extend plays and scramble for yardage. But can he make the right pre-snap reads and execute the offense?