By Alex Norman
A month ago all was well in the world of Tennessee football.
An 11 game losing streak to the Florida Gators was snapped with a dominant second half performance at Neyland Stadium. The Vols then beat Georgia on an improbable “Hail Mary” pass from Joshua Dobbs to Jauan Jennings.
Tennessee was 5-0 and seemingly sprinting towards a division title for the first time since 2007, and a spot in the SEC championship game. Maybe even a trip to the college football playoff.
Oh how quickly things can change.
The Vols luck ran out in overtime at Texas A&M. Tennessee was then embarrassed in a 39 point home loss to top ranked Alabama. And finally, an unacceptable defeat at South Carolina, in a game the Vols had two weeks to prepare for.
How does this… happen?
There are many reasons why the Vols dreams came crashing down to earth.
The first answer, which is the obvious one, is injuries. I’ve lost count at the number of players that have missed significant playing time because they are too hurt to play. The human body was simply never meant to play a sport like football. Blame the strength and conditioning coach all you want, but at its core this is a game in which big, physical athletes are crashing into each other at sometimes odd angles at often high rates of speed.
Injuries are inevitable. Unfortunately, Tennessee got more than its fair share this season. Defensive back Cam Sutton, linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, defensive tackle Shy Tuttle, running back Alvin Kamara … all key contributors to this team that had to sit out big games.
The second answer… team unrest. Recently, running back Jalen Hurd, who started the season only 891 yards shy of the all-time Tennessee rushing record, quit the team. A few weeks back, wide receiver Preston Williams quit the team and defensive tackle Danny O’Brien was kicked off the team. These things do happen, but they are often a sign that there are issues.
Some players took to social media to send out not so subtle messages to departed teammates, basically cheering their departures.
The third answer… coaching. For this point, we go back to Jalen Hurd’s departure. Hurd was a 5 star in-state talent, and one of the key gets for Butch Jones in the Class of 2014. In his first two seasons at Tennessee he was one of the best players on the roster. But in 2016 he was never used to his potential.
Part of that is because Jones and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord wouldn’t utilize him in a way that let him flourish. Hurd is a big, physical back that needs to operate between the tackles and in an “I” formation. Instead, Hurd was often asked to play within the zone-read system on long developing stretch plays. It’s tough to get five yards when you are asked to run 10 yards to the side after the handoff.
The offensive system doesn’t seem to allow for any type of deviation from the game plan unless Tennessee is trailing by multiple scores. Look back to the Florida game. Only after the Vols found themselves down 21-3 in the middle of the third quarter did Mike DeBord begin to take some chances. Only when trailing by multiple scores in the second half at Texas A&M did DeBord do the same. The Vols offense has looked great at times this season, but stagnation has set in. DeBord is Butch Jones’s guy and nothing happens there without his rubber stamp.
The final reason is that quarterback Joshua Dobbs is not as good as has been advertised. Dobbs is a great kid and a terrific ambassador for the football program and will have a tremendous life when his football career ends.
But Dobbs is what he is at this point. He has never been the most accurate passer, and that cost the Vols dearly in the South Carolina loss. Dobbs is best when moving his feet and breaking from the pocket but we haven’t seen much of that in 2016. Jones, DeBord and the rest of the coaching staff have not developed his game to a level it should be at right now, especially when you remember that this is Dobbs’ fourth year in the program.
Look, barring an epic collapse Butch Jones will be the Vols head coach in 2017. Remember, Tennessee is still looking for a new Chancellor, as well as a new Athletic Director. The last thing they want is to have to look for a new head coach.
But remember that hot seat that Jones escaped with Tennessee’s strong finish the 2015 season?
It’s warming up again…