Five things Tennessee needs to do to finish strong

With the daunting part of the Vols’ schedule out of the way, here are five things Tennessee needs to do in order to finish the season strong.

Tennessee receiver #3 Josh Malone takes a pass to the end zone for a touchdown against Florida on Sept. 24, 2016. Photo by Sumner Gilliam.

Tennessee heads into its bye week with a 5-2 overall record, going 2-2 in SEC play so far, but needs to take care of business to clinch a trip to Atlanta in December.. The Vols sit second in the SEC East, but are about to play five must-win games in which they are the more talented team.

Tennessee beat the current SEC East leaders, Florida (5-1, 3-1 SEC), back in September. With the assumption that Tennessee wins its five remaining games, Florida dropping one more SEC game will send the Vols to Atlanta. While the folks in Knoxville will be keeping a watchful eye on the week-by-week scoreboard down in Gainesville, winning the SEC East and going to Atlanta will not be possible if Tennessee does not win out.

Here are five things Tennessee needs to do in order to finish the 2016 season strong.

Get healthy and remain healthy

Since the Battle at Bristol, Tennessee’s injuries have piled up. At last count, around 20 players were out with injuries heading into a much-needed bye week. To make matters worse, at least 17 of those players have started at least one game for Tennessee during their career.

Against No. 1 Alabama last Saturday, Tennessee was without all five starting offensive linemen, three starting linebackers, two starting corners and two key defensive linemen. The Vols continued to take hits after the game —defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie was lost for the season with a torn pectoral, running back Alvin Kamara is sidelined for at least 2-4 weeks with multiple knee injuries and offensive guard Jack Jones had surgery to repair torn ligaments in his thumb.

However, the Vols should have some players back from injury against South Carolina next Saturday. All five of the Vols’ starting offensive linemen are expected to be good to go, and defensive tackles Kendal Vickers and Alexis Johnson are expected to be back from nagging injuries. The linebacker core should receive a huge boost with the return of Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Cortez McDowell. Kirkland suffered a high ankle sprain against Virginia Tech, while McDowell is bouncing back from a concussion at Texas A&M. In the secondary, corners Baylen Buchanan and Malik Foreman are expected to be play-ready after dealing with nagging injuries. Safety Micah Abernathy, a key contributor to the secondary, is also expected to be okay after suffering a hamstring injury on Saturday against Alabama.

Cut down on turnovers and penalties

Tennessee’s alarming 17 season turnovers ranks among the worst in the country. Along with the turnovers, Tennessee’s penalty yards are a concern going forward. The Vols have already lost one game due to those turnovers and penalties, cutting it close in other games. The Vols’ -2 turnover margin isn’t winning football by any stretch of the imagination.

Tennessee has committed 41 penalties for 368 yards, ranking 69th in the country and 11th in the SEC. The undisciplined play on both sides of the football needs to be fixed quickly. Although Tennessee is a better football team than its remaining opponents, the Vols will drop a game they shouldn’t if they continue to turn the ball over and commit too many penalties.

Stop with the conservative style of offensive play

After Tennessee’s beat down at the hands of Alabama last Saturday, few fans wanted offensive coordinator Mike DeBord to coach another game in Knoxville. While Saturday was one of Mike DeBord’s worst games at Tennessee, calling for his termination is extreme.

However, the conservative style of play on offense has to change if Tennessee wants to finish the season strong. Yes, there are moments (the second half of the Florida game and near entirety of the Texas A&M game) where the play calling was excellent. In these instances, DeBord was aggressive, made adjustments and kept his foot on the gas pedal. As for the Appalachian State, Ohio and Alabama games… did Tennessee even have an offensive coordinator?

Conservative play calling sucks the energy out of the offense and allows the defense to catch on to the offensive play calls. If a fan can sit in the stands and call out what play is about to be run, then the opposing coaches who devote hours to film study probably also know what’s coming. Tennessee has plenty of play makers on the offensive side of the ball — open up the offense. The sky is the limit for the Tennessee offense, as seen in the Texas A&M game.

Integrate Josh Malone back into the offense

Tennessee wide receiver Josh Malone has been missing in action from the Vols’ offense dating back to the Florida game on Sept. 28. If anybody sees Josh Malone in the Knoxville area, please relay that message to head coach Butch Jones and Mike DeBord because Tennessee is going to need the junior receiver in a big way going forward.

Malone started the season off on fire, catching 12 passes for 287 yards and five touchdowns. Since the Florida game, Malone has had nine catches for 115 yards and no touchdowns. Five of those nine catches over the past three games came against Alabama on Saturday when the game was out of reach. Simply put, Tennessee is not utilizing Josh Malone the way it was at the beginning of the season. This has to change starting next Saturday at South Carolina when the Vols comes off the bye week. Malone makes plays on the perimeter and is a deep threat for quarterback Josh Dobbs.

With the loss of redshirt junior running back Alvin Kamara in the coming weeks, the offense is going to need Josh Malone. Allowing Malone to make plays downfield will also prevent opposing defenses from keying in on the run. Doing so will take pressure off of running backs Jalen Hurd and John Kelly, giving the duo the opportunity to make plays. Josh Malone is one of the best wide receivers in the SEC when used properly, and it’s time for Tennessee to start getting No. 3 the football. The guy is tied for second in the SEC in receiving touchdowns, and that’s without seeing the end zone the past three games.

Tennessee’s offensive line has to play better

Saturday’s game against Alabama showed what the Tennessee offense will look like when the offensive line does not play well. Seemingly every Vol lineman was beaten by Alabama front seven, allowing the Crimson Tide to live in Tennessee’s backfield. The constant Alabama pressure flustered Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs and the rest of the Tennessee offense.

Dobbs had virtually no time to throw the football while protection quickly broke down, and that pressure prevented him from utilizing his legs in the running game. The running backs couldn’t get anything going either, as Hurd and Kamara were consistently met in the backfield. Tennessee was facing the most dominant defensive front in all of college football without four of its five starting offensive lineman, but that’s no excuse. The Tennessee offensive line has given up an SEC-worst 17 sacks, simply unacceptable for a team trying to make the College Football Playoff. The Vols will be getting a few guys back from injury against South Carolina next Saturday, which should help tremendously. Tennessee goes as Josh Dobbs goes, and Josh Dobbs goes as the offensive line goes. It’s time for the big guys up front to step up and allow their senior quarterback to make plays.

Edited by Nathan Odom

Featured image by Sumner Gilliam