We continue our series of question and answer sessions with those who cover Bulldog opponents this week by speaking with Will Shelton of SB Nation's Rocky Top Talk. Will is one of my favorite SEC writers in the SB Nation network because he knows his stuff so far as the Vols go, and he's willing to tell it like it is. I posed a few questions to him about the many questions facing Butch Jones' team as they play their first SEC contest of the season.
1) We knew coming into 2014 that Tennessee would be relying on a lot of young players. Are there any freshmen who have emerged as particularly strong contributors?
Will: The biggest names on signing day have been efficient without having to be spectacular just yet. RB Jalen Hurd really came alive in the second half of the Oklahoma game, finishing with 14 carries for 97 yards. Safety Todd Kelly has won heavy playing time early and may start against Georgia. WR Josh Malone has five catches for 63 yards through three games, but should be relied on much more because the Vols are so banged up at the position right now.
But the more important freshmen for Tennessee to this point have been along the line of scrimmage. The Vols are starting true freshmen at right guard, right tackle, tight end, and one defensive end spot. The Vols' struggles to protect Justin Worley were well documented against Oklahoma, and much of that fell on that side of the line as you'd expect. So the bye week was very important to get those young guys more on the same page and hopefully produce a better product this Saturday in Athens.
2) What is the verdict on Justin Worley at this point? Do Tennessee fans have confidence that he's the guy to lead them through the SEC schedule?
Will: Worley is Tennessee's best option at quarterback, which is of course not the same thing as Worley being the confident choice of the fanbase. His early season struggles last year were not forgotten despite a great game against Georgia and an upset win against South Carolina, in part because he was lost for the year the very next week at Alabama. The assumption all spring was redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson would win the job, but Ferguson left the program and Tennessee's two other options (sophomores Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs) both played last year without impressing, and neither ever seriously pushed Worley in camp. There are significant concerns about whether the quarterback of the future is on Tennessee's roster right now with Worley in his final season. For now, Worley is the best we've got, I thought he won a great deal of respect from all involved with the beating he took in Norman, and the coaching staff has trust in him to manage the offense.
3) Assuming my math is correct, Tennessee only returned 4 starters from the 2013 defense. What have we learned so far about the new Volunteer D?
Will: Here again, the freshmen get a lot of press but it's really been the play of a bunch of veterans and two key sophomores that has made the biggest difference. The main thing this defense shows is how important it's been for Tennessee to have the same coaching staff two years in a row, which the Vol defense hasn't enjoyed since 2010-11 until this year. With Curt Maggitt finally back after a November 2012 ACL tear and sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin playing significantly better than anyone thought he would, Tennessee is back to being what they want to be at linebacker with A.J. Johnson between the two of them. Before the bye week Johnson led the SEC in tackles and JRM was fourth.
Tennessee has been so good at linebacker it has helped protect a defensive line with four new starters. True freshman Derek Barnett and sophomore Corey Vereen at defensive end have also been better than people hoped this early in their careers. Sophomore Cameron Sutton at corner might be Tennessee's most talented defensive player and has emerged as a serious lockdown threat, and Brian Randolph has quietly been strong at the other safety spot. The Vols are still very raw in the other half of the secondary but young players are getting better every week.
I'm not so surprised that the defense has been this good as I am at how they've been this good. The Vols have forced five sacks and six turnovers in three games - these numbers are good but they're not mind-blowing. What's much more eye-opening is Tennessee's third down conversions allowed (23.2%, second in the country) and, on both sides of the ball, first in the nation in penalty yards per game. The Vols are so good on third down because they've been so good on first and second down, giving opponents between six and seven yards to gain on third down on average. This group is way too young to be this steady and mature. If the Vols can continue to play that way, this defense will win Tennessee some games this year we would've thought the Vols had no shot in back in August.
4) It is shaping up to be a very convoluted year in the SEC East. What would you consider a successful divisional finish for Tennessee?
Will: The fanbase would define success as six or seven wins; six and bowl eligibility would be a first since 2010 for the Vols. If Tennessee gets to 7-5 that would mean 4-4 in the SEC, so I'd say somewhere north of Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and then one or two teams the Vols might manage to beat somewhere along the way this year. If Florida goes into a tailspin again finishing third or fourth in the UGA/USC/Missouri group would be a solid season, and if things get crazy in the rest of the division the Vols could certainly seize an opportunity for additional upward mobility.
5) The Vols have suffered some injuries this season, including at wide receiver. How, if at all, do you think injuries will affect the outcome of this game?
Will: Wide receiver was such a position of depth for Tennessee coming into the year, and Von Pearson had showed some great flashes. He'll be back, but not on Saturday, and it seems likely Josh Smith won't play either. This makes Tennessee very similar at wide receiver to what the Vols had against Georgia last year - Marquez North, Pig Howard, and Jason Croom - with true freshman Josh Malone having a big (and needed) opportunity to break out. Injuries played a big role for you guys last year in this game, to be sure. At Oklahoma Jason Croom had three drops, one that became an Oklahoma interception. He has to play better for the Vol offense to take full advantage of opportunities Georgia's secondary may provide.
6) Finally, what is your score prediction? You don't even have to give me a firm number. Feel free to couch your prediction in terms of if/then statements.
Will: I think Tennessee fans want to see the Vols compete in this game, and I think they will. Tennessee and Georgia have played close games the last three years despite perceived and actual talent differentials. The Vol front seven has been good enough to make you believe they can make Hutson Mason have to beat Tennessee. The Georgia secondary has been questionable enough to make you believe Tennessee could have some opportunities in the pass game. But for the Vols, so much still hinges on the offensive line. If Tennessee isn't noticeably better up front on Saturday, Georgia will win comfortably. But if Tennessee can keep Worley upright and create some space for Jalen Hurd, I think we'll have another close game in the fourth quarter on our hands.
Our thanks to Will for taking the time to provide frank answers to our questions about the Tennessee Volunteers. Be sure to check out Rocky Top Talk for more. Until later...