Things have been pretty rocky on Rocky Top lately.
After starting the season 5-0, Tennessee has lost three in a row, with a surprise upset coming at the hands of Will Muschamp and the South Carolina Gamecocks last Saturday.
After the crushing loss, head coach Butch Jones announced that starting running back Jalen Hurd would no longer be with the team and that he planned on transferring.
Fortunately for Tennessee fans, this week’s game looks to be a much simpler task than the previous three outings, as Tennessee Tech comes to Neyland Stadium. As the Vols prepare to end their three-game losing streak, here are some players to watch for.
John Kelly, Running Back
With Hurd transferring and Alvin Kamara out for another week with a knee injury, sophomore John Kelly will receive the first start of his career against the Golden Eagles. Kelly has filled in nicely for both Hurd and Kamara during Tennessee’s last few games. With both of the stars that were on the depth chart above him gone, Kelly will likely be taking most of the load in the backfield along with freshman Carlin Fils-Aime.
Joshua Dobbs, Quarterback
Dobbs had one of the worst games of his career against a not-so-great South Carolina defense. He went just 12-of-26 on passing attempts, for 161 yards and a touchdown, along with two interceptions and a lost fumble. Dobbs is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the SEC and shouldn’t be struggling as much as he is. With Hurd gone and Kamara out, look for Dobbs to have more designed runs to ease the load on Kelly and Fils-Aime.
Kyle Phillips, Defensive Tackle
The injury bug has bitten Tennessee particularly hard this season. Sophomores Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle are both out for the remainder of the season, and senior Danny O’Brien’s dismissal from the team after the Texas A&M game didn’t help, either. This week, Phillips looks to be another sophomore that will get the first start of his career.
Phillips was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school, but his freshman campaign was plagued by injuries. He had one sack against Florida, but has only seen the field in three games so far this year. Tennessee Tech’s offensive line will likely give a lot of attention to the defensive ends Corey Vereen and Derek Barnett, so look for the middle to open up and for Phillips to be a disruptive force.
Derek Barnett, Defensive End
Barnett has been — to put it simply — absolutely dominant this season. He already has an FBS-best nine sacks on the season, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg on what he does every single game. In the third quarter against Florida, nothing could stop him from getting to the quarterback. The Gators had eight yards of offense that quarter. He even has two passes broken up and an interception on the year, all of which came against Florida, Texas A&M and Alabama. Barnett tallied three sacks against South Carolina.
If he can record three sacks against the Golden Eagles, he will tie Reggie White — aka the “Minister of Defense” — for most sacks in a career at Tennessee (32), and he’s not even done with his junior season. Tennessee Tech doesn’t have anyone who can stop Barnett.
Edited by Adam Milliken
Featured image by Hayley Pennesi, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics