Last year Tennessee struggled to stay healthy on the offensive side of the ball but the Vols were unusually healthy on defense, which was amazing considering the number of snaps most of those guys had to play. This year Tennessee had greater depth coming into the season, but at the halfway point that depth is being tested on both sides of the ball.
But we're also seeing an emerging youth movement, where more talented freshmen and newcomers are slowly making their way into the rotation. Add in what should be a softer second half schedule, and there are plenty of chances for young players to make their mark on 2015 in preparation to do more of the same in 2016.
On the other hand, injuries have to account for some percentage of Tennessee's struggles thus far. They're not the primary reason Tennessee is 3-3 instead of 6-0, but when you compare what the Vols looked like coming into camp and what they look like now, the difference is significant:
|QB||Josh Dobbs||Josh Dobbs|
|RB||Jalen Hurd||Jalen Hurd|
|WR||Marquez North||Josh Smith|
|WR||Josh Malone||Josh Malone|
|WR||Pig Howard||Jauan Jennings|
|TE||Ethan Wolf||Ethan Wolf|
|OT||Kyler Kerbyson||Kyler Kerbyson|
|OT||Brett Kendrick||Coleman Thomas|
|OG||Jashon Robertson||Jashon Robertson|
|OG||Marcus Jackson||Dylan Wiesman|
|C||Coleman Thomas||Mack Crowder|
|DE||Derek Barnett||Derek Barnett|
|DE||Curt Maggitt||LaTroy Lewis|
|DT||Danny O'Brien||Kendall Vickers|
|DT||Owen Williams||Owen Williams|
|LB||Jalen Reeves-Maybin||Jalen Reeves-Maybin|
|LB||Colton Jumper||Darrin Kirkland Jr.|
|CB||Cameron Sutton||Cameron Sutton|
|CB||Emmanuel Moseley||Emmanuel Moseley|
|NB||Rashaan Gaulden||Malik Foreman|
|S||Brian Randolph||Brian Randolph|
|S||LaDarrell McNeil||Todd Kelly Jr.|
We count 10 different players - almost half the starting lineup - who weren't on the first team list when camp opened but are now running with the starters. Half of them have filled in due to injury. The camp injury narrative wasn't as terrifying because the Vols hadn't lost any of their biggest names. But not only have we seen the difference Marcus Jackson and Rashaan Gaulden could have made, the Vols have also lost Curt Maggitt and have effectively been without Marquez North, two injuries that move the needle. Add in Pig Howard's dismissal, and you're dealing with the loss of two seniors and one of your most talented players.
Maggitt's absence has made a drastic difference in Tennessee's play behind the line of scrimmage. Last year Tennessee averaged 2.7 sacks and 7.0 tackles for loss per game, both in the Top 30 nationally. This year the Vols are averaging 1.5 sacks and 4.8 tackles for loss per game, both in the bottom 30 nationally. An easier back half will help, but against the best teams on UT's schedule one more sack or TFL could have made the difference.
North and Howard's absence has to be taken into account in the receiving numbers. At the halfway point the only Vol target with more than 200 yards is tight end Ethan Wolf. Consistency is beginning to emerge at the top with Josh Malone and Josh Smith, but it's still a slow process in Tennessee's passing game. Pig Howard was clearly Dobbs' favorite target the last two years and could have gone down as one of the top all-time pass catchers at UT, but the Vols must move on without him.
It's been Jauan Jennings who has stepped into that role as a true freshman, and he's joined by Darrin Kirkland Jr. on the defensive side of the ball. These two are technically the only two freshman starters for now, but a host of others are on their way to making a big difference for this team:
- Jack Jones and Chance Hall were instrumental in Tennessee's win over Georgia, filling in side by side on the offensive line as the Vols scored 38 points. I'm not sure who Tennessee's best five will be next week, and health will still be a concern, but these two have certainly earned a chance to get on the field.
- Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle were the first two defensive tackles on the field to start the second half against Georgia. Tuttle, unfortunately, is lost for the year with a broken leg. But his highly-touted counterpart should have every opportunity to make a name for himself on fall Saturdays. The Vols will especially need him against Alabama.
- Justin Martin (juco) is getting more and more snaps as the year goes on after a fall camp injury; he replaced Emmanuel Moseley late in the Georgia game after the Dawgs hit a number of downfield balls.