Tennessee Volunteers fans witnessed another heartbreak on Saturday against the Oklahoma Sooners. This game has been rehashed and discussed to no end, and the Vols have some major work to do after allowing the Sooners to erase a 17-point deficit to win 31-24 in double overtime.
There were some positives to be taken away from Tennessee's collapse, however. Players like Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Todd Kelly Jr., and Derek Barnett had some of the best games of their careers as Vols thus far against the Sooners. But the good easily outweighed the bad Saturday night, and the Vols have a lot they need to work on before the SEC season starts. And it starts with probably the most pressure-filled game of the 2015 season: taking on the Florida Gators in The Swamp.
The Vols learned a lot about themselves in the loss to Oklahoma. Head coach Butch Jones and his staff have a lot to correct with their team, and the game against Western Carolina is a perfect place to start. These are the most important things the Vols need to work on against Western Carolina in preparation for Florida and beyond.
The Vertical Passing Game
Possibly the biggest takeaway from the Oklahoma game was the lack of a downfield threat in the passing game. The Vols didn't have a pass play go for more than 20 yards against the Sooners, and they rarely attempted to even throw the ball down the field. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs settled for screens, intermediate passes, and throws to the sideline nearly all game, and that resulted in a day where Dobbs completed just 13-of-31 passes for a mere 125 yards. Marquez North, Pig Howard, and Von Pearson, arguably the three best receivers on the team, combined to catch just two passes for 17 yards. Pearson went without a catch and only touched the ball once, rushing for -3 yards.
The Vols know they can run the ball and do it effectively. Through two games Tennessee has run the ball 109 times compared to just 54 pass attempts. The Vols need to improve on their passing attack, and working through the kinks against Western Carolina seems logical. Running the ball against Western Carolina will prove nothing. Through two games against Mars Hill and The Citadel, the Catamounts have allowed 472 rushing yards. Western Carolina's run defense won't provide any sort of test for what the Vols will face in Gainesville the next week, so it would be wise of the Vols to try to develop some chemistry between Dobbs and his receivers.The Vols can name their score against the Catamounts, and they should be able to toss the ball with reckless abandon as well. But fostering a rapport between Dobbs and his receivers is a must moving forward. Developing even a serviceable vertical passing game would be far better than what the Vols looked like against Oklahoma, and Tennessee needs to put in the work against the Catamounts.
Middle Linebacker Play
Another obvious takeaway from Saturday's meltdown was the need for better play at middle linebacker. Current starter Colton Jumper is a really nice story, and Jumper has worked hard to get to where he is. But Jumper simply isn't the type of athlete that can play middle linebacker in the SEC. Jumper has started because of his ability to line up the defense and establish order in the front seven. But he's proven to be a liability in pass coverage in the first two games of the season, and his tackling is far from a sure bet.
Freshman linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. has been the main back-up to Jumper to start the season, and he got a lot of playing time in the second half against the Sooners on Saturday. While Jumper is still technically listed as the starter, Kirkland should get plenty of playing time against Western Carolina, and the staff needs to keep developing him so he can take over as quickly as possible for Jumper. Kirkland is a superior athlete and although he may lack the knowledge of defensive schemes Jumper has, his athleticism will allow him to overcome mental mistakes more easily.
The Vols need to find the right player to put in at middle linebacker. And Colton Jumper simply isn't the answer.
Stopping a Blitz
For the second year in a row, Oklahoma was able to get consistent pressure on blitzes against Tennessee's offensive line. The difference is last season the Vols had Justin Worley under center, and he couldn't escape a pass rush. Joshua Dobbs, however, was able to do so for most of the game Saturday. It wasn't until the Sooners dialed up different blitz packages and attacked the line more aggressively that Tennessee's offensive line began to look as bad as they did last season.
The Vols' simply don't have the type of athletes along the offensive line right now to consistently stop talented pass rushers. But they need to improve on what was a bad performance against the Sooners. The stat line shows only three sacks allowed against Oklahoma, but the Sooners were able to penetrate the line too consistently, and opposing defensive lines are only going to get tougher from here on out. Florida, Georgia, and Alabama all took note of Oklahoma's success blitzing on Saturday, and the Vols need to improve on their pass protection.
Finding a No. 2 Corner
Cam Sutton is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC and in the country. Sutton has the skill to consistently cover the best wide receivers the Vols face every game, but right now he looks like the only Vol corner who can cover a receiver downfield or over the middle. Malik Foreman has been more of a liability in the passing game than a benefit, and Emmanuel Moseley hasn't taken the step forward needed. Justin Martin has been too hurt to make much of an impact yet, and freshman Micah Abernathy has played sparingly.
Tennessee can't afford to keep having cornerback issues opposite Cam Sutton. The Vols may not be facing the kind of receivers they did last season, but opponents will keep torching the Vols if they can't find a consistent option on the opposite side of the field. Justin Martin should be the best fit, but he has to get healthy before he can become an effective player.