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Most Important Vol: The Home Stretch

Who will make the biggest difference as the Vols seek a 5-0 finish and a path to Atlanta?

Tennessee v Georgia Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Will Shelton - Josh Malone

The biggest difference in Tennessee's offense last year to this year is big plays in the passing game. Last year Josh Malone had 31 catches for 405 yards, just trailing Von Pearson for the team lead in both categories. Pearson followed Pig Howard's lead as the go-to option playing from the slot. In the first seven games this season, Malone has 22 catches for 402 yards and five touchdowns. For the Vol offense to continue to play at a high level down the stretch, they'll need Dobbs and Malone to continue to be on the same page.

Volundore - Every Healthy Offensive Lineman

With key players dropping like flies at all three levels of the defense, it's easy to forget how concerned we were with the offensive line early in the season. With Chance Hall out and Coleman Thomas forced into action on a bad ankle, the Vols struggled to create consistent offense against the likes of Appalachian State and Ohio.

Well...Alabama reminded us how bad the offense can look on Saturday as the Vols played various points in time without Hall, Jashon Robertson, Dylan Wiesman, and Brett Kendrick (and one of the lineman who finished the game, Jack Jones, reportedly needs surgery to repair torn thumb ligaments). The back half of the schedule is lighter, yes, but we've already seen the Vols flirt with danger when they cannot run the offense. If this season is going to end with 10 wins and a possible trip to Atlanta, Tennessee is going to need health, depth, and execution out of every available body on the line.

Justin R. Phillips - Jalen Hurd

When you've got a workhorse, you put him to work. Jalen Hurd is still primed to become UT's all-time leading rusher, particularly given the stretch of our five remaining opponents. With the news that Kamara is likely out for an extended period of time and the ongoing offensive line shuffle, perhaps the Vols need to consider playing a bit more ball-control and play-action with Hurd as the focal point. (Well, that and Dobbs keeping the ball on the occasional zone-read). Regardless of the philosophy, Hurd needs to be considered the #1 offensive option. One consistent aspect of Team 120 is their play in the fourth quarter, grinding opponents down into the ground. Hurd is just the guy to embody that principle. At this time last year our bruising 240-pound running back carried us through to the end of the season. He'll be needed to do so again through this home-stretch.

Incipient_Senescence - Tyler Byrd

Receiver has been a problem spot for Tennessee since the departure of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. The Vols have had plenty of talent, but they've been short on production. On the current squad, we've had Josh Malone emerge as the most dangerous (albeit inconsistent) downfield target and Jauan Jennings step up with consistency in the clutch. But with a patchwork offensive line, it's tough to go deep. That's where Tyler Byrd comes in. Not only is Byrd the fastest player on the team, he's also one of the quickest. And if the Vols can't go downfield, they'll need all the quickness they can get to spread the field horizontally. Byrd has already shown flashes of brilliance in his first half season at UT. Now it's time to become a true threat.

Hunter Turner - Shy Tuttle

Even though it's possible that Tennessee could win a series of shootouts down the stretch, the Vols would be better off if the defense could show some of last season's form against the offensively-challenged teams remaining on the schedule. Tennessee is all kinds of injured in the defensive backfield, so any improvement must be led by the defensive line. Steve Stripling's unit hasn't been as ferocious as expected this year, but there's still time for Shy Tuttle, Alexis Johnson, and Corey Vereen to round into form.