KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee could be without the top three players in the back seven of its defense for the Vols’ first road game of the season.
Coach Butch Jones revealed on his coaches’ show, “Vol Calls,” that the status of All-SEC linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game at Georgia (TV: CBS) is more in question than first believed.
“Jalen Reeves-Maybin, we’re still waiting on some final tests, another MRI, waiting on a word from there to see how his health is progressing,” Jones said Wednesday night, two days after saying the star linebacker was expected to play against the Bulldogs.
Last season’s leading tackler for UT, Reeves-Maybin suffered a torn labrum in the spring, and he suffered what was characterized as a “shoulder strain” in the third game of the season while diving to make a special teams tackle against Ohio.
The injury has put Reeves-Maybin on the sideline with fellow team captain and preseason All-SEC cornerback pick Cam Sutton (fractured ankle, Ohio game), and rising star middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., who suffered a high ankle sprain against Virginia Tech.
Reeves-Maybin started the Florida game but was ineffective and quickly replaced. Jones said Kirkland will also continued to be sidelined by his ankle injury, while Sutton is not expected to return for several weeks, if at all, this season.
All three players, Jones said, have been helping to coach their positions while out of practice this week.
Tennessee’s depth at the linebacker position, in particular, is being tested. Talented redshirt freshman Quart’e Sapp suffered a torn ACL against Ohio and is out for the season.
Former walk-on Colton Jumper has assumed middle linebacker duties, while fellow junior Cortez McDowell has been first in for Reeves-Maybin with Elliott Berry and Dillon Bates also figuring into the linebacker equation.
“You talk about resilience, not many teams in the country handle that when you take out three NFL type of players, three all-conference players,” Jones said. “We’ve had individuals step up, and we’ll need that same monumental effort in Athens, Georgia, on Saturday.”
Indeed, Tennessee forced Florida into three-and-outs on seven of the Gators’ eight offensive series in the second half with the three star players sidelined.
True freshman cornerback Baylen Buchanan, from Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee, Ga., has been pressured into starting on account of Sutton’s injury.
“He knows they are going to look for him and challenge him this week, and they have challenged him already,” Jones said, referring to Buchanan coming on in relief against Florida. “Baylen understands they are going to look at a true freshman and they are going to challenge him.
“The thing about him is he doesn’t blink.”
The Vols’ offensive line has grown healthier with Chance Hall returning to the lineup as the starting right tackle and playing every snap in the 38-28 win over Florida. Hall had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery on Aug. 18.
Jones said another banged-up offensive lineman will be back in the rotation this week after missing a start last Saturday.
“Coleman Thomas has been injured all year with ankles,” Jones said. “I’m sitting next to him in the training room a couple weeks ago, and he’s getting ready to play, and I look over and he has two swollen ankles that are black and blue, and that’s a young man that does not say anything.
“You talk about giving your all, he’s giving his all. It’s great, because now we’re getting him back to full strength.”
Defensive end LaTroy Lewis (ankle) and receiver Josh Smith (ankle) returned to the lineup last week after missing the Ohio game, though neither was particularly effective.