Tennessee coach Butch Jones called his team’s 52-21 win over Kentucky a “complete” game. While that’s true, there are always areas in which to improve. Here are the grades for the Vols deserve for their performance in the Commonwealth:
Tennessee’s offense scored 38 points but could have scored much more had special teams not carried the load. Tennessee didn’t even appear to try to score in the fourth quarter. The main concern now is the team’s inability to consistently protect Joshua Dobbs. The junior quarterback tends to hang onto the ball too long, and also has had a loose handle lately. He fumbled against Alabama on the decisive play and had two fumbles against Kentucky, losing one that was returned for a 77-yard touchdown.
It’s hard to figure out if Tennessee’s defense played really well or if Kentucky just quit. The latter appeared to be the case in the second half. The Vols gave up 349 yards but just 14 points. Darrin Kirkland Jr. had the defensive play of the night: The freshman linebacker looked like a seasoned NFL vet when he read a Kentucky screen pass to perfection, intercepted it and nearly returned it for a touchdown. That should get fans excited about the future. Kirkland also had a tackle for a loss, and defensive ends Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen both had two tackles for a loss. Barnett’s came in the form of two sacks. Walk-on senior linebacker Max Arnold forced a fumble and recovered it in mop-up duty.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A+
Tennessee was explosive on special teams with two long returns for a score. Evan Berry may have cemented his status as an All-American kick returner. The sophomore returned his third kick of the season for a score when he decided to bring the ball out from deep in his own end zone. Junior Cameron Sutton didn’t look fresh against Alabama, but his 84-yard punt return for a touchdown against Kentucky was impressive. Tennessee’s coverage teams were solid as well. Beleaguered kicker Aaron Medley made his one field goal attempt from 44 yards. That should help his confidence.
Credit Tennessee’s coaches for getting their team ready to play Kentucky after another gut-wrenching loss last week. Jones and his staff had a solid plan on offense. The 75-yard touchdown from Dobbs to sophomore receiver Josh Malone should loosen up defenses in the future. Tennessee needs to take those type of shots more often; Dobbs has a strong arm and the Vols have the receivers to win one-on-one matchups. The only knock on the coaching was how they handled the Tennessee’s offensive line. The Vols tried different combinations early, which seemed to create confusion up front.
Tennessee played a near perfect game against Kentucky and proved ready for a stretch run that could net the Vols their most regular-season wins since 2007. It might be anticlimactic after the close games against ranked foes early in the season, but eight wins would be worth commendation. However, it will be hard to watch Florida win the SEC East and not wonder what might have been.