Upon Further Review: An orange shade of progress
At times, progress can be difficult to define.
It's nuanced, and sometimes, immeasurable. It looks differently depending on the team, the individual or even the coach.
For years, Vol Nation has yearned for tangible evidence that their program could — would — wander its way out of the wilderness. They were tricked by Butch Jones and teased in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season.
But in the last month, there’s not a better illustration as to where Tennessee was — and now is — than sweeping November without ever even playing a complete game.
The Vols — the same embattled group that no-showed to start the season against Georgia State, was the cellar-dweller king of the SEC East the last two seasons and laid a November egg just last year — managed to resiliently rally to save their season with five straight wins over South Carolina, UAB, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
Yes, none of the aforementioned teams are any good. But eight weeks ago, neither was Tennessee.
You have to crawl, and then walk, before you want to start running with the big dogs, and the Vols are finally off all fours.
We still don’t know if Pruitt can “get Tennessee back” to beating teams like Alabama and Georgia, but in Year 2, it was paramount he proved he could start to knock off the other midsize sedans in the SEC.
“Unless you were here the first day that I walked in this building I don’t think you understand how far we actually have come,” Pruitt said postgame.
“Coach (Phillip) Fulmer was here. It’s a long ways, I can assure you of that. I’m excited for our guys, the way they feel, the confidence that they have. We’re playing with so much more confidence, believing in themselves, believing in each other.
"You think about it, over the last five wins, there have just been different points in the game where somebody stepped up, a unit stepped up and found a way. That’s what good football teams do, you’ve got to find a way. Even when you’re maybe not playing at your best. I look at our assistant coaches, what they’ve done keeping these guys together, keeping them believing, and them finding a way to get it done.”
The Vols managed to run the table down the stretch despite failing to put together a complete 60-minute performance in any of the wins. That's frustrating for many coaches and players, but that's still progress compared to recent history.
On a waterlogged Saturday night in Neyland Stadium, Tennessee restored order with its in-state rival by piddling around and still beating Vandy by 18.
Again, that’s progress.
The Vols finished the regular season with a 7-5 record — right around where Vegas prognosticators pegged them to start the season — and the same as teams like Texas, Texas A&M and Washington.
Could the Vols had won nine games? Should they have?
Perhaps, but I’m a firm believer in the notion you are what your record says your are. Hypotheticals be damned.
The Vols won the games they earned. And they earned seven regular season wins by responding from a humiliating Week 1 loss and a 1-4 start.
Folks won’t be bouncing their grandkids on their knee telling them about Tennessee’s 2019 season, but this group of Vols should not be forgotten so quickly.
They were resilient. They were tough. They were feisty yet flawed.
The loss to Georgia State was merely one chapter of their story. Same for Saturday night’s win over Vandy.
Progress can come in shades. We know it isn't always linear, and Tennessee embodied that notion to the fullest in 2019.
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!
2. Five guys who I thought played well
A. TE Dominick Wood-Anderson
B. RB Eric Gray
C. DE Matthew Butler
D. P Paxton Brooks
E. Tennessee’s interior OL (Trey Smith, Brandon Kennedy, Jerome Carvin)
On Senior Night, Wood-Anderson delivered his best performance in a Tennessee uniform. It’s a shame his family was unable to make the pregame festivities, as the California native was effective both as a receiver (3 catches for 45 yards and a touchdown) and a blocker (he stoned an edge rusher 1-on-1 on a second-half pass play). Wood-Anderson’s night could’ve been even bigger, too, had Tennessee hit on a few other plays.
Jim Chaney dialed up a deep wheel route for the senior tight end in the first half, but Wright gets beat inside immediately. I mean, Wood-Anderson was wide open but Guarantano never had time to look left to see him.
I wrote about Gray’s electric night yesterday but a few more thoughts.
Checkout this hole.
Pruitt might've squeezed his F-150 through that thing. Gray finished both runs with his breakaway speed, but they were set up by some excellent blocking up front, especially on the interior.
On the record-setting 94-yard touchdown, Darnell Wright had a great peal block, allowing Gray to make one jump cut and go.
But Gray didn’t just feast on his two long runs. He was effective seeing the cut-back lanes all game. Of his 25 carries, 13 went for five yards or more. Bob Kesling asked Pruitt if he knew how many yards Gray had on the night to which Tennessee’s head coach replied, “Well, I knew he had over 150 because I can add 90 + 50 and I saw a few extra good runs (too).”
Elsewhere, Matthew Butler doesn’t get a lot of shine but the junior has developed into a solid contributor for the Vols, and Saturday might’ve been his most consistent performance. He’s never going to wow folks with his athleticism or explosiveness, but Butler has a Energizer Bunny motor that allows him to make plays. He finished with five tackles, a battled pass at the line and two quarterback hurries (one QB hit). It was a nice showing, especially on a night when Aubrey Solomon was unavailable.
Finally, Paxton Brooks has had a tough couple weeks, but the sophomore punter bounced back with a really good showing in some tough conditions Saturday. He caught several high snaps on punts, averaged over 43 yards in a steady rain and had two punts land inside the 20-yard line.
3. Five guys who’d like Saturday back
A. TE Austin Pope
B. LT Wanya Morris
C. WR Josh Palmer
D. DE Darel Middleton
E. RG Riley Locklear
As good as Wood-Anderson was against Vandy, Tennessee’s other tight end had his roughest night of the season. Outside of a terrific crack-back block on Gray’s third touchdown, Pope was ineffective as a run blocker.
He also had three penalties, putting Tennessee behind the sticks on multiple drives. Pope allowed a pair of quarterback hurries, too.
Morris wasn’t much better, getting flagged twice and playing just 18 snaps before getting yanked for Jahmir Johnson. It’s been an up-and-down season for the freshman, who has struggled with consistency while battling a minor ankle injury.
Palmer didn’t record a catch one week after going over 100 yards receiving for the first time all season. The junior was partially responsible for Guarantano’s interception, and later, Pruitt pulled Palmer for some words on the sideline when the wideout didn’t come back for the football on a deep dig, allowing Vandy’s cornerback to recover and make a PBU.
While Butler, and even guys like LaTrell Bumphus, Kurott Garland and Ja’Quain Blakely, were good on Saturday, Middleton had an off night. He jumped offsides, missed a tackle and was largely invisible aside from one pressure compared to his fellow DL.
4. Tennessee’s defense didn’t record a takeaway for the second straight game (although it should’ve been credited with one on Alontae Taylor’s forced fumble), but the unit played fundamentally sound football for every drive but one.
They rallied to the football (although they missed a few too many tackles) and did a nice job putting constant pressure on the quarterback.
They had three sacks, getting each in different ways.
On one drive with back-to-back sacks, the Vols had a “team sack” where the secondary blanketed Vandy’s wideouts, the interior DL collapsed the pocket and the edge rushers finished the play.
On the very next snap, Roman Harrison collected his first-career sack by just whipping his man inside.
Kivon Bennett’s sack was a great blitz call by Derrick Ansley and Pruitt, sending late pressure from Kenneth George and Bituli, coupled with a DL stunt, allowing Bennett to clean up the trash for a third down stop.
Both of Vandy’s two big plays (22-yard receptions) were simply solid throws by Riley Neal, who was mostly bad otherwise. Taylor was actually in position for a pick when he misjudged his jump on Kalija Lipscomb’s touchdown.
On Chris Pierce’s long catch, the Vols got pressure in Neal’s face but he stepped up to make an over-the-shoulder throw to Piece right along the sideline.
Vandy’s lone scoring drive went 10 plays for 90 yards, as Tennessee was unable to get off the field on a few third and fourth downs. Pruitt had the right call on 4th-and-5, but a Tennessee defensive back missed the blitz call and dropped deep into coverage, allowing Neal to scramble for a first down.
5. It was not a huge showing from Tennessee’s seniors on Saturday but I did want to highlight two plays — one on offense and one on defense — as to why the Vols will miss Daniel Bituli and Jauan Jennings next season.
Both came on key third downs.
This type of play only comes from a linebacker with great instincts. Bituli diagnosis the run immediately, completely avoids the blocker and makes the tackle for a stop to put out the fire after Guarantano’s interception.
As for Jennings, he may not have the pure foot-speed, but he can effortlessly glide past — and through — defensive backs. Everyone in Neyland Stadium thought he was scoring a touchdown on that play.
6. My rapid thoughts on Jauan Jennings sideline tackle and subsequent scrum and stomp.
A. I do not know if Jennings intentionally stepped on Justice Shelton-Mosley’s face.
B. You do not know if Jennings intentionally stepped on Justice Shelton-Mosley’s face.
C. Only Jennings knows if he intentionally stepped on Justice Shelton-Mosley’s face.
The play was not a good look for Tennessee’s senior wideout, but it was a great encapsulation of his career. A brilliantly violent play (his sideline tackle) followed by unencumbered, raw emotion.
7. Trey Smith was asked postgame if Saturday was his final game at Neyland Stadium. The junior guard sidestepped the question, only saying, “I’m not focused on that. I’m focused on making sure the team is successful while I’m wearing orange and white.”
Smith has literally risked his life playing for the Vols, and with a strong last eight weeks of the season, no one could blame him for wanting to get paid to play (and risk so much) the rest of his career.
If Saturday was Smith’s final home game for the Vols, it was a fitting finish for the 6-6, 325-pound beast. He was ho-hum as usual, destroying linebackers and defensive backs in space and gobbling up defensive tackles in the trenches. He was excellent in his 1-on-1 battles with Vandy’s best pass rusher Dayo Odeyingbo, who finished with zero quarterback pressures.
With a run-heavy attack, it was Smith’s kind of game, too. Dirty. Physical. Painful.
“It’s good and bad. Because you’re like, ‘Dang, I’m about to hit this dude over and over and over. And it’s about to hurt.’ But you know, if you can impose your will and you’ve got a back like Eric that can just break it, there’s no better feeling,” Smith said. “It can go either way, and it went a great way tonight. It was pretty fun.”
8. Jarrett Guarantano wasn’t crisp Saturday, finishing the win with just 120 passing yards on 6 of 17 attempts.
A week after he completed 10 passes over 20 yards, Guarantano had just a single such completion vs. Vandy. With a slick ball, the redshirt junior couldn’t get a firm grip and saw his accuracy wane.
The interception to Palmer was aided by some defensive holding, but Guarantano also is late with the football. In the second half, Guarantano also had a dangerous throw across the wide side of the field, but it fell incomplete in front of Jennings’ feet.
And yet, Tennessee’s quarterback still had a hand in the win. He routinely checked the Vols in and out of run looks. He also setup the second touchdown with a little Brett Favre improvisation, flicking the ball to Wood-Anderson after Tim Jordan was beaten badly (and should’ve been called for a hold) on a blitz.
9. An underrated play of the game.
With Tennessee up 21-3 to start the second half, Vandy dialed up a tricky throwback play. The ‘Dores had it totally setup, too.
A completion easily might’ve resulted in a 75-yard touchdown. Instead, Latrell Bumphus was able to get his paws on the football just enough to tip the pass and blow up the play.
In the last few seasons against Vandy, a couple huge game-changing momentum plays have happened early in the third quarter, but with Bumphus’ heady play, the Vols avoided such disaster Saturday.
10. My favorite back and forth between Pruitt and Bob Kesling on the coach’s show Sunday morning.
Kesling is reviewing Alontae Taylor’s fantastic forced fumble on Vandy’s drive after Guarantano’s interception. You see Taylor get his helped ripped off as he punches the ball out. Quickly, Butler flies into the action without his helmet on, too.
The back and forth:
Pruitt: I really don’t understand these penalties.
Shorter Kesling: Me either, but here are the rules.
Pruitt: I’m just trying to figure out how (Butler’s) helmet got off.
Kesling: That’s another key question.
Me: Thanks, Bob!
11. The last word: What does the Tennessee-Vandy rivalry mean to Pruitt?