[title_box title=”Tennessee football midseason grades”]
Six games down, six games to go.
It is fair to say that the season has not gone quite the way that many people expected it to go. After three heartbreaking losses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas, Tennessee got a huge win over the Georgia Bulldogs to pull even at 3-3 and 1-2 in SEC play on the year.
Here are assistant sports editor Nathan Odom’s grades for each position group and the coaches halfway through the season.
Quarterback — B-
Joshua Dobbs has not been quite the savior Vol fans thought he was. Some even considered him a dark horse Heisman candidate. However, the numbers have been a bit below expectations. He is only averaging just over 183 passing yards a game and did not complete 60 percent of his passes in any of Tennessee’s four games against Power Five opponents. Despite those stats, Dobbs has been a very competent offensive leader and has taken care of the ball relatively well. His ability to run the ball forces defenses to play him honestly and Dobbs has been a major threat on the ground. If he can throw the ball down the field the rest of the season like he did against Georgia, the SEC East will be on Dobbs watch.
Running backs — A
When Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara have touched the ball, good things have happened for Tennessee’s offense. Hurd is averaging right at 95 yards per game on the ground and he and Kamara have combined for 13 of Tennessee’s 25 offensive touchdowns. Hurd and Kamara have been the ultimate complements to each other, but only when Mike DeBord and the offense actually give them the ball. Hurd got four touches in the second half of the Arkansas game, and Kamara got only one in the second half of the Oklahoma game. More on that later.
Wide Receivers — D
The only reason this is not an “F” is because of the Georgia game. Tennessee’s preseason starting receivers — Marquez North, Pig Howard and Von Pearson — have a combined 13 catches for 158 yards through six games. North has never been 100 percent healthy and Howard was suspended from the team, leaving sophomore Josh Malone to be Tennessee’s only consistent receiver until the Georgia game. The wide receiver group has four touchdowns as a whole. If Tennessee continues to open up the offense and lets Dobbs throw it around, then Pearson, Josh Smith and Preston Williams will have to step up and make big plays.
Offensive line — B-
The offensive line is improved, but still a bit sluggish. It has given up 11 sacks this season, good for No. 59 in the country. Dobbs has only had a handful of plays to feel comfortable staying in the pocket for a few seconds to make a throw. The run blocking has been good, but inconsistent. The Vols have had repeated trouble getting a push on outside run plays. Despite that, their interior blocking has been pretty good. With a back like Hurd behind them, they only need to give him an opportunity to bust through a hole. Freshmen Jack Jones and Chance Hall played impressive time against Georgia and should see more of the field as the season progresses.
Tight ends — A
Ethan Wolf is leading Tennessee in total reception yards with 15 catches for 213 yards and two touchdowns. Dobbs loves throwing to Wolf, who continues to prove he is as sure-handed as any pass catcher on the team. Along with his pass-catching ability, Wolf has proven to be one of the Vols’ best blockers. He has been as good as anyone at sealing the edge or getting a block out in open space, and Hurd has seen a lot of field open up while running Wolf’s way. Alex Ellis has not seen many balls thrown his way, but is nearly as consistent of a target as Wolf and is a competent backup.
Defensive line — C-
The defensive line was, without question, the most hyped position group during Tennessee’s offseason. Derek Barnett returned after setting the Tennessee freshman record for sacks and tackles for loss in a season. Blue chip recruits Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie have paired with returning veterans Owen Williams and Danny O’Brien to produce a lackluster nine sacks through six games. The Vols’ nine sacks are tied with Rice, UCLA, Georgia State, North Texas and Stanford for No. 96 in the country. While Barnett has seen a lot of double teams to limit his success, Tennessee has gotten little to no pressure on opposing quarterbacks with a three or four man rush.
Linebackers — B+
Of Tennessee’s nine sacks, Jaylen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. have combined for five of them. Kirkland Jr. has been a pretty large upgrade from Colton Jumper, who opened the season as the Vols’ starting middle linebacker. Reeves-Maybin, who led the team in tackles last year, has racked up 56 total tackles so far this season, nearly 20 more tackles than anyone else on the team. The linebackers’ biggest flaw has also plagued the rest of the defense — they have missed too many tackles. Chris Weatherd’s “feared pass rushing abilities” have been lost in the shuffle of, well, everything. However, the group’s overall play has slowed down most rushing attempts and should continue to anchor the defense going forward.
Secondary — D
Play from safeties LaDarrel McNeil, Todd Kelly Jr. and Brian Randolph has really elevated the criticism this group has received. Tennessee fans knew that Rashaan Gaulden’s injury would hurt the secondary, but the majority certainly did not picture Malik Foreman and Emmanuel Moseley consistently being burned deep. Cam Sutton has also been beaten an eyebrow-raising amount of time this season, although the number of times is only concerning by Cam Sutton standards. McNeil and Kelly Jr. both have a pair of interceptions, which coincidentally are the Vols’ only interceptions. Keep in mind that McNeil missed the first two games of the season with an injury. The defensive line and secondary’s combined struggle have left fans sweating every time an opposing quarterback sends a pass deep.
Special teams — A
Could Trevor Daniel be Tennessee’s midseason MVP? How about Evan Berry? Daniel was seemingly not even in the competition for the starting punting job until he won it right before the start of the season. Now, Daniel is No. 4 in the country, averaging 47.6 yards per punt and has seemingly punted the Vols 50 yards down the field every time his number is called. His punt against Georgia was one of the main reasons the Bulldogs could not come back and tie the game with seconds remaining. Speaking of national recognition, Berry is the nation’s leading kickoff returner with 550 total kick return yards, more than 100 more yards than the second-place returner. He has two kickoff return touchdowns and has consistently put Tennessee in excellent starting field position when he takes the ball out. Aaron Medley’s placekicking inconsistencies are a bit of concern, but he has been pretty solid since missing the last-second 55-yard field goal against Florida.
Coaching — F
Simply put, Tennessee should be 6-0 right now. Game mismanagement and conservative play calling cost Tennessee all of their losses. It took Butch Jones and company three heartbreaking losses and a 24-3 home deficit to decide to open up the playbook and take some shots down the field. If Josh Smith had dropped the fourth down pass that turned into a touchdown and the start of the comeback, Georgia would have continued on to a blowout of Tennessee. Jones has to see that opening the playbook and avoiding conservative play calling are his only options to keep Tennessee headed toward a winning season.
Edited by Cody McClure