The Tennessee football team returned to practice on Monday at Haslam Field with the Vols’ attention focusing their attention on Saturday’s Southeastern Conference game against top-ranked Alabama.
UT will travel to Tuscaloosa for a 3:30 p.m. matchup with the Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
CBS will televise the game, in which Tennessee is an early 34-point underdog.
Tennessee is coming off of a 15-9 loss to South Carolina, where redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano showed strides in his first career start. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder drove the Vols to the Gamecocks’ 2-yard line in the 73 seconds, nearly completing a pass for a touchdown on the final play.
Guarantano is expected to make his second career start against an Alabama defense that is allowing 10.1 points per game and 254.3 yards of total offense – both tops in the SEC.
The Vols haven’t scored a touchdown in their last 10 quarters.
Still, the quarterback, who did not commit a turnover, showed enough poise in his first start to give the Tennessee coaching staff something to build on.
“I thought he brought energy,” coach Butch Jones said Monday. “He was able to make plays with his legs. He experienced some growing that comes with making your first start against a very good and physical defense. He will continue to grow. One thing you cannot put a price tag on is playing experience. I like the command presence he brought. Our players fed off of his leadership. He made some plays. In the end he stood in the pocket. He gave us an opportunity to win the game. We have a lot of positives to build on.”
Guarantano gained 44 yards on 10 rushes, but finished with minus-2 yards because of seven sacks.
Offensive coordinator Larry Scott referred to the hidden yardage Guarantano can find with his ability to get the first down when a play breaks down.
“He gave us a little bit of a spark, a little bit of the energy that we needed,” Scott said.
Meanwhile, junior Rashaan Gaulden continues to have a standout season in his nickel-back role. He tied his career best with 10 tackles against South Carolina and has proven to be one of the best and most versatile Vol defenders in 2017.
The Spring Hill, Tenn., native has made 40 tackles this season, and has the ability to play every position in the secondary.
"(Rashaan Gaulden) played corner in the Georgia Tech game, which was unusual, obviously, and did very well there,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “He has played both safety positions. He has played the nickel.
“Rashaan, there is a guy who week in and week out who has played at an exceptionally high level and deserves any recognition that he receives."
Gaulden was targeted five times in the South Carolina game and allowed just two catches for 4 yards. He’s been the standout player on Tennessee’s pass defense, which ranks No. 2 in the nation, allowing just 129.2 yards per game.
“When you turn on the tape, no matter who’s watching, you know where No. 7 is on the field,” defensive backs coach Charlton Warren said.
On Friday, Jones had Brent Cimaglia come to his office and he told the freshman place-kicker he would be handling all kickoffs and place-kicking duties for the game against South Carolina. Senior Aaron Medley will miss an undisclosed amount of time with an illness.
Cimaglia didn’t flinch, drilling all three of his field goal attempts – from 29, 33 and 24 yards, and recording touchbacks of three of his four kickoff attempts.
“You saw a guy that in the situation, he didn’t act like a freshman,” said Warren, who is also the Vols’ special teams coordinator. “He got up there and he did what he was trained to do. He kicked the ball. He did a great job with our kickoffs, putting the ball in the end zone.”
Cimaglia is called “fiery” by teammates and coaches, and the freshman did not back down when a USC defender ran into him following a made field goal.
Entering the game, Cimaglia had made just one field goal – a 51-yarder at Florida – in his college career.
“He views himself not only as a kicker but as a football player,” Jones said. “There have been times in practice where he has gone down and made the tackle. We have had some fun with that. To his credit, he was ready to go…he told me that he was ready. He went out and performed like it.”
In other news, the SEC announced on Monday the Oct. 28 matchup between the Vols and Kentucky Wildcats will be played at 7:30 p.m. at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky and will air on the SEC Network.
COACH AND PLAYER QUOTES
Coach Butch Jones
“There is no mystery. We are missing big plays. Not just on the offensive side of the ball but also on defense and on special teams. We’re missing tackles for losses and take-a-ways. We need to impact the quarterback more. We need bigger returns on special teams. Offensively, we need big plays. I thought it was a tale of two halves. In the second half, we did not execute. That was very disappointing. I understand as the head coach every loss is my responsibility. We are going to continue to work and grind our way out of it. That’s the only way I know how to do it.
“In terms of Alabama, they are the most complete football team I have seen in a number of years. All you have to do is look at their body of work to see that. They lead the SEC in total offense and defense. They lead the SEC in scoring offense and defense. They are number one in the country in rush defense. They have a +11 turnover margin. They have 10 interceptions. It’s going to be a great challenge but also a great opportunity. This game means so much to so many people. We’re looking forward to a great opportunity.”
On the lack of red zone efficiency:
“It really came down to lack of execution. It’s a combination of a breakdown here or there. It’s everywhere. You cannot have pre-snap penalties. You can’t go from first-and-ten to first-and-fifteen It starts with command of the line of scrimmage. It starts with discipline. It’s going through our progressions and protecting the quarterback. When you get in the red zone, the field condenses. Everything speeds up. We work very hard at that and will continue to. It all boils down to execution.”
On senior defensive back Evan Berry:
“Evan will be at practice starting today. Does that mean he will be ready for Alabama, I can’t tell you that yet because I don’t know. We are very encouraged that he is going to practice today. He has worked very hard to put himself in this position.”
On the defensive woes vs. South Carolina:
“There is a combination of a lot things. First of all, consistency. We start off stopping a run, then a couple of plays later they run it again and we misfit it and they pick up 20 or 30 yards. Those are things that are hard to recover from. I do think we have been wore down at times. It’s a byproduct of complementary football. The offense can’t go out and get a three-and-out. They go hand in hand. We only had two possessions in the fourth quarter. That’s very difficult. We allowed a 10-play drive. The kids are playing hard and giving it everything that they have. I think it’s a combination of discipline and also being on the field for long periods of time. I think the other difference was going from third-and-long in the first half to third-and-short in the second half. That makes a big difference as well.”
On what goes into creating a big play and how to get big plays against the Alabama defense:
“There’s a lot that goes into the big play. I think first of all, it’s the ability to win your one-on-one matchup. But then, there’s a number of times where you have the opportunity for a big play, and the big play never arises because we don’t win a one-on-one matchup up front or we go somewhere with a different read. I think there’s so much that goes into the manufacturing of a big play. Some of it is play calling. We thought we had a play that we had practiced with the double pass with Josh (Smith) in the red zone. It comes down to execution. It comes down to winning your one-on-one matchups. If you are going to throw in an exotic play, I think all of that is in the timing of when you call the play as well and then what area of the field and what defense they’re in. So, there’s a lot of elements that go into it. It’s not just throw the ball up and make a big play. Sometimes, it occurs in the run game with the extra strain up front or the extra strain out on the perimeter in blocking. Sometimes it could be as simple as the backside receiver on the convoy block, where the backside corner is the last line of defense. There’s so much that goes into it.”
On speeding up the offense:
“I thought in the first quarter we were able to play to our style of play. We were able to get some off-tempo plays in there. When we ran it, we were very efficient. We got lined up fast. I think, in the second half, we had way too many three-and-outs. When you have three-and-outs, that stifles your tempo. We didn’t play to the tempo that we would like. I think a lot of that is a byproduct of sustaining drives, as well.”
On the evolution of the offensive playbook:
“We’ll continue to evolve. It’s all about playing to his (Jarrett Guarantano) strengths, or whoever the quarterback is. We’ll continue to evolve. I think the other thing you have to be cognitive of is not to give him (Guarantano) too much. We want his ability to take over. We don’t want his mind to tie his feet up or his thought process as well. I think it’s a combination of the volume, what he can handle and then his ability to go out and play freely. That starts with preparation. That starts with practice.”
On Tennessee’s one-minute offense being used more frequently:
“We’ll look at all that. Some of it was their (South Carolina) fronts and coverages that they were in at the end of the game. I thought our offensive line really did a good job of allowing him to stand in the pocket and go through his progressions. We did a good job, for the most part, of catching the football, and then executing the one-minute drill of getting out of bounds. But, that’s something we’ll continue to evaluate and look into.”
On the offensive line’s performance:
“I think every game is different. Football is a game of matchups. Against one team, you may match up one particular way. Against another team, you may match up another way. So, I think it’s evolving. The more we have those five individuals play together, the better. Also, football is a game of matchups. How do you match up against this opponent as to other opponents?”
Defensive Coordinator Bob Shoop
On Alabama’s offense:
"They are playing really well and they are playing with a lot of confidence and it starts up front. Their offensive line is big butt, big legs and come off the ball and work really well together. They've got great skill, speed and length at the wide receiver position. A couple of weeks ago, I commented on the depth of the running backs at Georgia. Well, this group is every bit as deep as that. I think Harris is averaging over nine yards per carry and they have a quarterback that runs about as well as any running back we've played against as well. (Jalen Hurts) has improved a lot I think from last year. He throws the ball much better."
On Jalen Hurts' improvement:
"I've said it before - a defensive coordinator's nightmare is a dual-threat quarterback of (Jalen Hurts') quality. He certainly makes plays in designed quarterback runs. He did that last year against us and he has done that against a lot of teams. When it's third down and you feel like you've got the play covered and you've done everything right and your rush lane integrity breaks down just a little bit, he has the ability to make plays with his arm and his feet and he does an excellent job of that. I have an immense amount of respect for him."
On Alabama's backfield:
"You can do a survey of the defensive staff and each one of us has a different favorite guy. Harris is as much improved as anybody in the country. They say he has lost a little bit of weight, he's leaner, he's faster. First play against Arkansas, he took off and made a great cut and has great vision for a 75-yard run. I still can't get Scarborough's run last year here out of my head. All of those guys are really, really talented players. That's the area where we need to improve on - our consistency with our style of play, but also to continue to develop quality depth. Probably on both sides of the ball, but I'm specifically talking about the defense. I think we have played pretty good at times on defense, to be very honest. I don't necessarily think that we are the '85 Bears or anything like that, but I think the guys have played pretty well.”
On if Rashaan Gaulden could play any spot in the secondary:
"(Rashaan Gaulden) played corner in the Georgia Tech game, which was unusual, obviously, and did very well there. He has played both safety positions. He has played the nickel. Now with some of the injuries we have had at safety, he's repped there and he's prepared to do that. Evan Berry was out there today, so that was really good. We certainly could use him in the second half of the year. He is an explosive athlete who can play against some really good teams as well. Rashaan has played at an exceptionally high level and deserves any recognition that he receives."
Offensive Coordinator Larry Scott
On the last series of the South Carolina game:
“As far as moving down the field, you knew you were going to have to have some chunk plays in there. You weren’t going to be able to with time and no timeouts to kind of five yard it, six yard it, seven yard it all the way down the field, you were going to have to have a chunk play and we were able to hit one. And then you wanted to get into a quick enough play where you could kind of agitate the corner or DB and get a PI or get a touchdown. We were able to get a PI and get the ball down to the 2-yard line. So we put ourselves in the best situation we could being the circumstance and you just got to go finish it. You got to execute and finish it and come away with the ball and come away with a touchdown.”
On Jakob Johnson’s possible return to the offense:
“It’s big to have healthy bodies being added back the quality depth being added back to the offense so yeah, you know you’ll see Jakob rolling back into there and get more comfortable, get through this week of practice, see how he feels and get him going in the games.”
Defensive Backs Coach Charlton Warren
On forcing turnovers:
“It’s a little bit of both. We try to do a good job every single day of doing something to hunt the ball from a fundamental and technique standpoint so that in a game it’s second nature. If you go back to the Florida game, you see guys just in piles, ripping the ball out and the hammering the ball out from behind like in Justin Martin’s play. It becomes second nature and depending on the way the game goes; those opportunities present themselves and you have to take advantage of them. It’s a lot of coaching the technique and the mindset of the defense to go after the football and know the techniques to do it. In the game when the opportunity presents itself, the first guy there has to secure the tackle, but the second has to get the ball out.”
On freshman kicker Brent Cimaglia’s performance:
“You saw a guy that in the situation, he didn’t act like a freshman. He got up there and he did what he was trained to do. He kicked the ball. He did a great job with our kickoffs, putting the ball in the end zone. I thought his fiery temperament as a guy the situation was not too big for him. He can go in there and knock down kicks. It’s going to be really for him op time, fundamentals, technique, putting the ball consistently where we want it on all our kicks. I like what he’s doing and he came in and he did a great job for us on Saturday.”
On redshirt senior punter Trevor Daniel’s performance:
“I don’t think he’s out-kicking his coverage. We’re running down and covering. We love as a defense if we can get a 70-yard punt and flip field position. I’m not going to ever complain about it. We have to have the hang time to go along with that so it’s not a direct line to the returner. When we can get flip field position, that’s a weapon. We have to make teams drive the football field consistently throughout the football.”
Junior Running Back John Kelly
On what he’s seen from Alabama:
“They’re a really good team. They always have a really good program. I came down here to play against the best competition and Alabama being the No. 1 team in the country says a lot about them. I know that they’re a really good team.”
On what has hindered the team from getting into the end zone:
“I think it just comes down to execution. There were a couple of plays where, if we would have just executed, we would have been in the end zone. We just need to get down to our execution. We have to execute and be perfect during practice, pregame warmups and everything. We have to practice to perfection.”
Sophomore Wide Receiver Brandon Johnson
On the final play of the South Carolina game:
“I got my hands on it. It was a tough pass, but I want that one back. It was one I know I could make, and I just hope I get another opportunity to be able to make a play like that.”
On the lack of big plays on offense:
“As I’ve said before, it comes down to execution. We trust everything our coaches put in. We trust it with all of our heart. Really, all it comes down to is execution. We’re working hard at it every week, day-in and day-out, just trying to get wins.”
On the quarterback-wide receiver chemistry since changing starting quarterbacks:
“I’d say the relationship is actually pretty good, just because we see both quarterbacks every day in practice. So, no matter who’s in the game, it’s never too much of a difference because we see both of them every day in practice.”
On facing Alabama:
“Alabama is a great team. There’s a rivalry there. We’re not going to approach this week any different than we would any other week. We’re going to approach it just like we would any SEC or other opponent. We’re just going to go out there and play our best.”
Junior Defensive Lineman Kahlil McKenzie
On passion showed by freshman kicker Brent Cimaglia on Saturday:
“I pay a lot of attention to the kickers since I’m on field goals, so I’m with those guys all the time. Brent’s like that. I took his stripe off, so me and Brent go back since he got here. He’s different. He has a little bit of swagger about him. I like it. He’s confident out there, miss or make, he’s just ready to get back out there.”
On improvement of redshirt-junior cornerback Rashaan Gaulden:
“He’s done it since camp. He’s really done it since I’ve been here. He just loves to hit, loves to go out and make plays. He doesn’t make mistakes and he loves football. He’s a guy that goes to get the ball. He’s a leader out there, so I’m not surprised to see him make plays.”
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)