football Edit

Upon Further Review: The endless existential crisis that is Vols football

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After Saturday’s latest debacle, Tennessee football is in such a state that even Nietzsche might think, “That’s too grim.”

Just when you think it’s the nadir, another existential crisis is only 60 minutes away.

Following the 34-3 defeat to a Florida team missing at least three of its top 5 players, the Vols have now lost seven games in the the last 18 months by 26 points or more. Second-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt lost eight games total in five years as a defensive coordinator. This ain’t a copy and paste of The Process. It’s The Recession, Part Infinity.

“About every way you could self destruct, we tried to find that way,” Pruitt said.

“We wanted to make the other team beat us. We wanted to raise our level of play. We did that to some point, but when you turn the ball over, it’s hard to see the production or positive things.”

The Vols were outcoached in the blowout loss, but the staff doesn’t block, catch or carry the football. Much of Saturday’s self-inflicted shellacking was poor execution by the players and revealed this rebuild is going to take a lot longer than even the most optimistic Tennessee fan believed. Bowl hopes?

Another 0-8 season in the SEC is now a real possibility. … Vol Nation is once again being asked to be patient. For the last decade, that's the only promise that's been fulfilled on Rocky Top."

Yes, I wrote that exactly a year ago after an embarrassing 26-point loss to Florida at home. And somehow, Saturday was worse. It can’t be deja vu if the nightmare never ends.

Tennessee’s program is at an impossible crossroads. It’s a virus with no discernible cure. They have a coach who I truly believe knows football better than several of his predecessors yet has demonstrated little to no ability to actually translate that knowledge to his team as a head coach. Outside of blowout losses, the Vols have no identity. They’re staring at a third straight season without a bowl game, yet the idea of starting over (and lighting around $15 million more dollars on fire) could set the program on a path that’s unrecoverable.

Exactly a year ago against UF, Pruitt kicked a white board in frustration. Some 12 months later, he tried to describe his team by comparing it to the Titanic.

Well, the historic ship sunk in less than three hours. Tennessee’s storied program has been drowning for 10 years.

The only hope for now is the Vols find a way to tread water long enough to swim out of this darkness.

THE STARTING 11

Each week, I’ll rewatch the tape so you don’t have to. Here’s a skinny dozen of notes, analysis and final thoughts…

1. Rapid report card grades!

QB: F

RB: D

WR: B

TE: D

OL: C

DL: C+

LB: D

DB: D

ST: C

2. Five guys who I thought played well

For the sake of consistency, I’ll keep this category today even though identifying who performed well in yesterday’s mess is the parallel to the thinnest kid at fat camp joke from Heavyweights.

A. A pair of backup DL — Matthew Butler and Kurott Garland

B. PK Brent Cimaglia, Paxton Brooks

C. DB Alontae Taylor

D. DB Theo Jackson

E. WR Jauan Jennings

It’s admittedly a stretch to put anyone here, especially Jennings considering he was partially at fault for Tennessee’s first turnover, but he also was one of the lone bright spots on a unit that was a disaster Saturday. Taylor’s addition comes with a caveat, too, as he was fortunate Jacob Copeland dropped a 50+ yard pass, but the sophomore corner did responded fairly well to his benching a week ago otherwise, catching a pick off a tip and recording a pass breakup. The kickers both did their jobs and Jackson had a hand in two takeaways and was the team’s best safety for the third straight week.

Finally, while the Vols couldn’t generate any pass rush without sending extra bodies, both Butler and Garland showed well upon replay in the run game and ate blocks for fellow blitzers on pass rush downs.

The Vols appeared to have benched Darel Middleton and Aubrey Solomon got dinged up, so Butler played a season-high in snaps (perhaps a career-high, will know after PFF data) while Garland was out there a lot, too. Tennessee’s run defense did bottle up Florida until garbage time, allowing just 2.19 yards per carry before the Gators ripped off runs of 11, 13, 12 and 10 yards (a touchdown) to salt the game away.

3. Five guys who’d like Saturday back

A. QB Jarrett Guarantano

B. CB Bryce Thompson

C. LB Henry To’oto’o

D. The right side of the Vols’ offensive line

E. SS Nigel Warrior

Again, many in the program truly qualify here after another no-show. But several individuals did notably stand out. I wrote about Jarrett Guarantano’s struggles Saturday and will expand a bit below, but he had perhaps the worst game of his career. Whatever Chris Weinke and Jim Chaney are doing with him isn’t working. At all. Thompson’s 2019 debut was a disaster, as the former Freshman All-American was picked on routinely, allowing eight receptions on nine targets. Thompson never allowed more than five catches in a game all last season.

To’toto’o, while solid as a rusher, really looked like a freshman in pass coverage. Warrior is a senior who was so lost at times he looked like a freshman. Finally, the new-look right side of Tennessee’s offensive line did not inspire much confidence Saturday. Overall, I thought the OL was ok, but K’Rojhn Calbert and Darnell Wright allowed multiple pressures (and both got away with a couple holding penalties), while Riley Locklear wasn’t any better in relief, getting penalized twice and pushed back in the run game.

4. The Jarrett Guarantano story: The Cliff Notes Edition

And in video form...

5. I understand every argument for benching Guarantano.

I also understand (but not sure all fans do) that things could absolutely look worse with Brian Maurer or JT Shrout behind center for a whole game. Guarantano’s yanking Saturday was 1000% deserved. He had multiple balls tipped, did nothing to inspire his teammates and missed open receivers. I highlighted the above three-play sequence, but the swing pass to Ty Chandler was also egregious.

Chaney calls a play that’s well-blocked and should give the Vols a chance for a first down. Instead, they had to sweat out a 2-minute review to make sure they didn’t have another turnover. Monday morning quarterbacking is always easy, but it’s clear Guarantano is a mess right now.

And yet, it bears repeating that Pruitt told anyone who listened all offseason that Guarantano was his guy and after just a couple series decided he’d seen enough from Brian Maurer to chose to go back to JG. That means something, even for folks who don’t want it to be true.

6. As for Maurer, Tennessee had little intention of inserting him into the game Saturday because if the Vols did their plan made zero sense.

The Vols ran more tempo, which plays to Maurer’s strengths, but they didn’t do much else to help their freshman quarterback. Where were the zone reads and RPOs?

Just a week ago, Pruitt said that Maurer replaced Guarantano first because the Vols had a run-heavy package for him. Well, we saw none of that yesterday.

In 19 plays, the Vols called 14 passes. I have no idea what Chaney is thinking there. They came out of halftime and handed the ball twice to Eric Gray, who gained 11 yards after the Vols had 15 rushing yards the entire first half, and then dialed up 11 straight passes.

On those 11 throws, Maurer had a nice completion to Brandon Johnson, was sacked three games looking to escape the pocket, had a couple balls sail out of bounds, threw into triple coverage where Cedric Tillman turned into a defender and telegraphed a pass for an interception.

Again, I think Maurer should absolutely have a weekly package in the offense moving forward, but should he automatically be handed the job because the guy in front of him is struggling?

7. Which leads me to personnel changes… Much of the talk over the bye week will be about playing “Pruitt’s guys.”

Bench the vets with the psychological scars! Insert more freshman into the lineup! Play the kids!

Well, it’s a misconception — among both some fans and media members — that the youth movement isn’t already on. It is. Outside of quarterback and safety, the Vols are playing tons of underclassmen — i.e. mostly Pruitt’s guys. There’s not some grand reserve of others waiting in the wings. That’s a wishful myth.

Will Ignont lost his job to a freshman linebacker and didn’t even travel Saturday. Three underclassman started on the offensive line. Cedric Tillman has cracked the receiver rotation. The defensive line rotated eight guys, none of whom really played a year ago. Quavaris Crouch (around 30 snaps) and Roman Harrison (sub-packages) are regulars now. Eric Gray should get more touches but who else are you benching on offense?

The safety spot, where Warrior continues to underwhelm, is the only true spot where the Vols haven’t given Jaylen McCollough (who did play a bunch in the fourth quarter Saturday) or Tyus Fields (who didn’t play at all) a meaningful look yet. Perhaps that changes after the bye week, but otherwise, Pruitt & Co., are already playing the guys they feel give Tennessee the best chance win. That’s the reality.

8. Last few personnel notes, but I liked Tennessee’s short-yardage package with Crouch at tailback and Greg Emerson as the lead blocker. Of course, several other decisions made little sense. Kenneth George earned the start a week ago and played well but with a secondary getting torched he couldn't get a look until garbage time? Pruitt wants to play more inside linebackers, but Shanon Reid was pulled after a single snap and Jeremy Banks only played special teams. Also, Darnell Wright has his head spinning learning a new position and you flip-flop him back and forth from guard and tackle on Saturday? I don't get it.

9. The Vols forced three turnovers Saturday, with Bituli, who like To’oto’o got picked on in pass coverage due to poor eye discipline, recording a sack-fumble and Jackson and Taylor coming up with interceptions. Yet Tennessee’s offense turned those takeaways into three points.

The idea of complimentary football doesn’t exist with the Vols. It hasn’t for years. Tennessee's overall offensive drive chart Saturday was the ultimate sad trombone.

The offense was anemic in the first half, and the defense only sprinkled in good plays with disjointed busts.

After Maurer put the Vols on the scoreboard, briefly giving Tennessee some juice and life, the defense allowed Trask to march down the field in six plays to take a 24-3 lead.

Despite its full compliment of players, the Vols’ pass defense was exposed by the first true quality quarterback they’ve faced all year. Dan Ellington and the Moron Manziel had their moments, but the linebackers and secondary weren’t tested aerially on a per-play basis. They were Saturday, and they failed their first exam. Trask had 10 completions over 15 yards, feasting on the middle of the field.

Dan Mullen’s scheme is designed to spread defenses out wide and force linebackers and safeties to communicate and read their keys correctly. Didn’t happen for Tennessee. Warrior busts one of the first plays from scrimmage and Bituli and To’oto’o routinely bit on play-action fakes, losing their depth. Communication at all levels of the defense was poor. Starting from the opening drive of the game, UF had receivers just running free. All day.

“They weren’t doing anything we didn’t prepare for,” Jackson said.

Perhaps that’s the most concerning part.

10. Throughout the week, I noted that Tennessee’s best path to victory Saturday was starting fast (nope), forcing turnovers (yes), attacking Marco Wilson/UF’s secondary (Chaney tried) and Guarantano having a repeat Auburn performance (ha!).

Instead, the Vols played another game of self-flagellation. “I could honestly say we beat ourselves today,” senior center Brandon Kennedy said. Left guard Trey Smith later added, “A lot of times we’re holding ourselves back.”

Tennessee’s postgame “lack of execution” refrains have been played more than Rocky Top lately.

11. The Vols committed a rash of dumb penalties Saturday, resulting in 75 free yards for Florida — tied for the most penalty yardage of the Pruitt Era. Calbert’s personal foul killed a drive but was at least explained by Pruitt as a hustle play.

Chaney constantly preaches his guys to “finish” and that’s what Calbert did. The rest cannot be written off, though. Trey Smith had an obvious hands to the face. Guarantano, inexplicably, drew a delay of game to start the second quarter.

In a bout of frustration, Jennings nailed the punt returner following a fair catch. The Vols are climbing an uphill battle to start every game anyways, adding free yardage to the opponent is a guaranteed way to make sure you get wiped off the field.