It has been difficult to pick up the pieces from Saturday's costly 33-23 loss to Florida in The Swamp, marking the seventh-consecutive setback for the Vols at the hands of the Gators.
Alas, we must. And with nearly two weeks until Tennessee takes the field again against Buffalo, we've got a lot of time to reflect on the very few positives and many negatives from the latest "rivalry" game against UF. Most importantly, we have plenty of time to speculate about the many unknowns facing this team A.H. [After Hunter].
Onto the trends.
- Stock in DeAnthony Arnett as UT's No. 2 Receiver. The little-used but highly-rated freshman from Saginaw, Mich., filled in admirably for Justin Hunter after the superstar went down. He led the Vols with eight catches for 59 yards, and though he'll never be the deep threat that Hunter was, he at least runs good routes, has good hands and gives Bray another option. We'll certainly face better secondaries than Florida's, but it looks like developing Arnett can help us now and really be beneficial for 2012 and beyond.
- The Need to Get the Ball in the Hands of Marlin Lane. With the running game sputtering along at a dismal rate [more on that later], the Vols absolutely must find a way to get playmakers the football. Through three games, Lane is tied for the team lead -- (don't even make me mention with whom) -- with four touchdowns. It's obvious that he and Raijon Neal need to have the opportunity to make plays in space. That's on the coaches to find ways.
- My Faith in Tyler Bray. We knew he'd make critical mistakes at times, and perhaps none was more critical than his interception to start the second half that was converted into a UF touchdown and a 23-7 lead. But even when his top weapon was taken away, Bray still hung in the pocket, made some great throws and battled. There were another interception or two dropped, but it's hard to argue with his final numbers, even with the Gators blitzing and in his face all day. The sophomore finished 26-of-48 for 288 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. One of those picks came on UT's last offensive play when the Vols desperately were seeking anything downfield. But the one big mistake was indeed crucial. Still, it's evident he's a weapon with the potential to be a special talent.
- The Future of Our Linebacking Corps. We all thought this going into the game, but we believe it more now. There are going to be growing pains -- and there were a few in that UF game including A.J. Johnson being woefully out of position on Chris Rainey's 84-yard catch-and-run and Curt Maggitt's failure to wrap up -- but the two true freshmen were arguably UT's most relentless two defenders at times. Johnson had the strip and fumble return that kept the Vols in the game and also led the team with seven tackles. Maggitt added six stops, including one for a loss, and hit people with authority all day in his homecoming. They've got miles to go, but both are going to be top-notch talents.
- Bye-Week Placement FTW! Sure, it would have been nice to have a week to savor the sweet upset win over the Gators, and that's what we hoped this would be at the beginning of the season. Yes, it would have been nice to have a break somewhere in a brutal October stretch. But with Hunter's injury, there is no better time to have the bye week than right now. Jim Chaney and company must re-tool the entire offense A.H. Dooley said in his press conference today that the coaching staff spent five hours in the film room looking at the running game and finding ways to help those guys out. It's also a pivotal time to get Arnett, Matt Milton, Zach Rogers, Vincent Dallas, Devrin Young, etc., ready to go. Finally, though we've not heard anything about this, the Vols may mix and match offensive linemen to see if there's anything they can do to get any sort of push. I think it's time for wrinkles, and having two weeks to play and three weeks until a real challenge in Georgia is very beneficial.
- This Sorry Excuse for a Running Game. I don't really know what to say here. I'm so frustrated trying to watch Drive-Suicide every time we hand off the football that I'm probably going to say something I shouldn't if I get too far into it. But all you need to know is it's pathetic. The fact that UT is 105th in the nation in rush offense is bad enough. When you factor in that two of the three opponents so far are Montana and Cincinnati, it's worse. From the offensive linemen to the running backs to the wide receivers to the fullback, things have to change and change in a hurry or we're looking at a historically bad season running the ball. It's simply unacceptable. Dooley spent five hours in the film room looking at the running game. It needs to be the focus for five days.
- James Stone's Right-Handed Snapping. Well, at least we know Bray would make a helluva hot corner in the infield. Stone -- UT's sophomore center -- is a natural left-hander who switched to snapping with his right hand this spring, and apparently he and Bray worked on it much of the offseason. But Stone was snapping grounders to his quarterback in crunch time multiple times Saturday. That simply cannot happen. I think it was because he was getting his butt whipped so often that he was concerned with what was going to happen post-snap that he didn't have his mind on the snap pre-snap (got that?) I don't know how much better Alex Bullard is in shotgun snapping, but if the first few games are any indication, we know he's not much better than Stone in blocking, so I don't know if there's any real fix right now. Saturday was Pouncey-pathetic.
Anything Michael Palardy is Doing Right Now. I really hate calling out players. REALLY hate it. But who out there has confidence in the former No. 1 high school kicker in the nation right now? Anybody...? Me neither. Palardy again missed a chippy field goal early in the game that could have kept the Vols from trying to match-up and catch-up points late. He is also horribly inconsistent on kickoffs, booting one to the goal line one minute and the next one to the 20. Finally, after his 39-yard punt, it appears that stage of his UT career is over [Darr punted three times for a 44-yard average]. I guess we all see why Dooley is using a valuable scholarship on a kicker this year. This start is Lincolnian.
- Anemic Returns. Dooley must have really, really decided pregame not to put Young back there on kicks or punts because the Vols were atrocious in the return game. Lane actually did have a 35-yard kickoff return late where he made a couple of moves, but for the game, he gained just 41 total on his other three. He also had just 13 yards on two punt returns. On Da'Rick Rogers' lone kickoff return, he gained 14 yards. The players just look like they're in quicksand on their first few steps after fielding a kick or punt, and there's nothing that looks remotely encouraging back there right now. Time to get Young in the gameplan.
- Big Plays Allowed. Upon re-watch of the game late last night, I came to the conclusion that the guys on the podcast were right -- we didn't play awful on defense and actually looked really good at times. But there were far too many big plays allowed. I know you have to realize going into a game against a team as fast as Florida that there will be some big-gainers, but given that it was a problem in the first two games, you'd like to think the Vols would do something to remedy it. Still, there were seven plays that went for 15 yards or more and two more that went for 14. Of course, the biggest of those plays was Rainey taking a three-yard pass and turning it into an 84-yard touchdown. The Vols grinded very well all day on Saturday, but they've got to limit the backbreakers.