KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee sees itself in position to achieve it’s so-called “dreams, goals and aspirations” this season, provided the No. 18-ranked Vols can win out.
Tennessee is off this weekend before returning to action Oct. 29 at South Carolina.
The Gamecocks have played the Vols within three points in the teams’ past four meetings, so the game is certainly not a gimme.
Particularly when one considers the well-documented injuries Tennessee has sustained.
Here are the Vols’ most important players the second half of the season:
1. Quarterback Josh Dobbs
Tennessee’s quarterback has masked the program’s offensive line problems the past two years with his elusiveness and play-making abilities. Dobbs will need to continue to ad lib and escape pressure when looking to throw to keep the Vols’ offense moving.
2. Defensive end Derek Barnett
Barnett has been a one-man wrecking crew in SEC action, on a tear like defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said he has never before seen in all of his years of coaching. Barnett was worth at least 10 points against Alabama, his fumble-inducing hit setting up UT’s only touchdown, and his interception in the red zone saving what would have likely been at least three points.
3. Running back Alvin Kamara
Kamara is Tennessee’s most versatile player, starring as a runner, receiver and on punt returns. Kamara leads the Vols with 110.4 all-purpose yards per game. His knee issue will certainly be worth monitoring moving forward.
4A.Wide receiver Josh Malone
Malone helped get the season started for the Vols with touchdown catches in each of the team’s first four games. Malone has not found the end zone in the past three games, however. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior is, however, coming off a 61-yard receiving effort against Alabama that saw him match his career-high with five catches.
4B. Wide receiver Jauan Jennings
Jennings has made the most of his moments this season, etching his name in the history books with his catch on the “Hail Mary Between the Hedges” at Georgia, and helping the Vols strike revenge on rival Florida with his 67-yard go-ahead TD catch in the 38-28 win. Jennings needs to be more consistent: He has three games with 68 or more yards receiving and four games with 24 yards or less.
6. Safety Todd Kelly Jr.
Kelly Jr. is a leader in the locker room as well as on the field, as he essentially helped recruit Tennessee’s star-studded junior class of in-state players. Kelly leads the team in tackles (50) and interceptions (2).
7. Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr.
Tennessee needs more leadership on and off the field, and if Kirkland can return for the South Carolina game, he’ll be sure to provide plenty of both. Shoop identified Kirkland and Barnett as the Vols “enforcers,” in the sense that they carry the message to their teammates. Kirkland’s speed will help in the linebacking corps, too.
8. Running back Jalen Hurd
It has been a disappointing season for Hurd, whose average yards per carry has dropped to 3.8. Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord has said he has the kind of relationship where players can talk to him about what works for them and what doesn’t. Hurd is too talented not to be utilized in a manner that would serve both him and the team better. I-Formation, or put him behind the QB in the “pistol,” at the very least.
9. Linebacker Colton Jumper
Jumper has stepped up and played extremely well at middle linebacker in Kirkland’s absence, now second on the team with 42 tackles with a forced fumble, a QB hurry and two pass deflections. Shoop says Jumper will stay on the field when Kirkland returns.
10. Nickle back Rashaan Gaulden
This play-making nickel back has delivered some shots in run support, and his cover skills have proven more than adequate. Gaulden has 33 tackles — fifth on the team — along with 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and two pass deflections.