Five UT Vols Bye Week Observations
The Vols are coming off their biggest win this season at South Carolina and are in prime position to return to a bowl for the first time since 2010, needing two out of three wins to close the season.
This week’s bye has come at a good time. The Vols have been able to rest up after a grueling six-game stretch and are preparing for the final three contests that will decide their postseason fate. Here are five thoughts and observations about the team as the Vols prepare for the stretch run:
1. The offense has a whole new look with Joshua Dobbs at quarterback
Left for dead in the middle of the season, the Vols have come alive on offense with Dobbs in at quarterback for the injured Justin Worley. A team that went over 120 minutes of game time without a touchdown against an SEC team at one point in the season has piled up 65 points over its last two games to go along with over 1,000 combined yards of total offense. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has mixed in more quarterback runs, motion and different formations that have kept the defense on its heels with the more mobile Dobbs in at quarterback.
2. The offensive line has stepped up
Having a quarterback who can elude the rush better certainly helps, but an offensive line that gave up 18 sacks in a three-game span against Florida, UTC and Ole Miss, has only conceded two in the last two games against Alabama and South Carolina. Nobody is confusing this group as one of the most skilled units in the SEC, but it’s gotten better and is clearly playing with more confidence.
3. Don’t forget about Jalen Hurd
Dobbs has drawn most of the national headlines, but freshman running back Jalen Hurd has stepped up as well. At times the only experienced healthy running back available over the past two weeks, Hurd has piled up 269 combined yards of total offense in that span. His fourth-down catch and run for a touchdown at SC kept the Vols in the game after Hurd broke two tackles on his way to the end zone. “I think Jalen Hurd is playing well,” said UT head coach Butch Jones. “Saturday night he finally got a chance to showcase some of his skill set, especially on the fourth-and-three screen with the balance, the spin and getting vertical and getting the ball in the end zone.”
4. The secondary must improve
The Vols have been torched through the air the past two weeks by Alabama and South Carolina for an average of 331.5 yards given up per game. Covering the opponent’s top receiver has particularly been a problem. Both Alabama’s Amari Cooper and SC’s Pharoh Cooper both set schools single-game receiving records against the Vols. That’s never good when opponents are dusting off the record book against you. The Vols won’t face another passing attack of that caliber again in the regular season, but communication must improve and perhaps some new faces need to surface.
5. Finding more depth will be critical
The Vols’ starting 22 players match up pretty well against most opponents. There isn’t a ton of depth behind them at several spots, however. The bye week could help that. Tennessee is giving more looks to player such as defensive back Rashaan Gaulden, linebacker Jakob Johnson, running back Derrell Scott, safety Todd Kelly, linebacker Cortez McDowell, defensive tackle Dimarya Mixon, receiver Vic Wharton and several others who are on the cusp of earning more playing time. If the Vols can find about five more players who can play significant snaps and help the team, they’ll have a better chance of making a bowl.