Tennessee coach Butch Jones held his weekly press conference on Monday and one of the first subjects discussed was the Vols’ injury situation after a 24-10 win over Southern Miss snapped a four-game losing streak.
Starting with players who will miss the rest of this season:
All-America kick return special Evan Berry.
He was injured in the Georgia Tech game, missed the next seven and returned to play briefly against the Golden Eagles. He was injured again and will now focus on getting ready for a possible career in the NFL.
Berry returned a kickoff 47 yards to set in motion Tennessee’s first touchdown drive to open a game of the season. Berry had one other return for 10 yards.
“I give (Berry) a lot of credit for working his way back and getting himself ready to go,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, he has an injury and as we look at it right now, it is season ending.”
Two wide receivers – Josh Smith and Latrell Williams – will also miss the rest of 2016.
Four more players – wide receiver Marquez Callaway and offensive linemen Brett Kendrick, Marcus Tatum and Drew Richmond – are questionable for Saturday’s game at fast-improving Missouri, which viewed side-by-side last weekend, looked dramatically more polished and cohesive than the Vols.
Injured but listed as probable to face the Tigers are quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and defensive back Shawn Shamburger.
“Jarrett is much better today,” said Jones, who very well may be coaching his final three games (Missouri, LSU and Vanderbilt) at Tennessee. “I think (Shamburger) will be ready to go.”
Freshman Will McBride replaced Guarantano, who left in the second quarter against Southern Miss, and did an admirable job “managing” the remainder of the game. He went 1 for 3 for 13 yards, barely missing a long touchdown pass to Josh Palmer on his first collegiate throw, and rushed once for minus-2 yards.
Defensive end Jonathan Kongbo, who missed Saturday’s game due to a suspension for “violating team rules,” has to “earn” playing time at Missouri, Jones said.
After all the lineup shuffling that left the Vols looking like your grandmother’s hand-made quilt sewn together by the neighborhood ladies, Tennessee wobbled to a 14-point win against the Golden Eagles, a team the Vols have now beaten six times without a loss by a combined 224-65.
Missouri, which destroyed Florida 45-16 in Columbia last weekend, is not Southern Miss. The Tigers are 4-5 overall and 1-4 in the SEC East, just ahead of Tennessee (4-5, 0-5). The only team lower in the standings is Vanderbilt (4-5, 0-5).
The Vols and Commodores close the regular season on Nov. 25.
Tennessee has NEVER had a winless SEC season, and that covers 84 years and 13 coaches, including Gen. Neyland twice.
Five times Tennessee came extremely close, winning a single conference game – 1954 (Bowden Wyatt), 1964 (Doug Dickey), 1977 (Johnny Majors), 2011 and 2012. Those last two “bombs” belonged to Derek Dooley, who was fired and ran out of town after the second miserable season quicker than Lane Kiffin could get on a jet for the West Coast after months-long stint in Knoxville.
Butch Jones is closing in on that infamous territory. It is conceivable Tennessee will not be favored in any of the last three games. Missouri opened as an 11-point favorite, the first time since 2014 the Tigers have been a double-digit pick.
It looks now like four of Jones’ five seasons in Knoxville will end with losing records in the SEC. That too may be enough for John Currie, the school’s athletic director, to send Jones packing later this month.
So, as Jones said Monday after talking about injuries and such, “On to Missouri.”
Jones said the Tigers are playing with a lot of momentum, passion and energy. They have three straight wins. They have an explosive and dynamic offense ranked third in the SEC and 14th nationally. They are No. 1 in the SEC with 480-plus yards per game and quarterback Drew Lock is playing at a really high level.
The instability of Tennessee players’ health has reached the point that Seth Washington will be in the Vols’ vernacular all week.
Who is Seth Washington?
“The third-string quarterback, right now,” Jones said, “is Seth Washington.”
Washington is a 6-foot, 199-pound freshman from Dallas, Texas, and played at Episcopal School of Dallas. Like McBride, who burned his redshirt to pick up for the injured Guarantano, was widely ranked as a three-star high school player, who, incidentally, battled his senior year when he threw for 1,081 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The rest of Jones’ edited press transcript:
On Missouri’s run game:
“They do a really good job with the RPOs and really matching up the run game with a RPO or two. They have fits for that team and that game. I think they have really good running backs. There was a number of situations in their game last week where they were able to make the first or second level defender miss and get the ball vertically, so they are very explosive. I think they add another dynamic when they involve the quarterback into the run game, which they have done that. He is a very good football player.”
On Ryan Johnson and Devante Brooks:
“In terms of Ryan Johnson and Devante Brooks, when you look at Devante, that’s the first time he has really played competitively in a game situation since his sophomore year of high school. I thought he did some good things and obviously some things we will need to correct. The same thing goes for Ryan. I thought Ryan did some good things moving forward for us. Considering the circumstances, I think they did an admirable job and they will continue to get better with the reps they are gaining right now.”
On balancing using quarterback Jarrett Guarantano’s mobility while protecting his ankle:
“It’s seeing exactly where he’s at from a health standpoint and what quarterback gives us the best opportunity to win. I was really encouraged today with Jarrett’s progress and obviously with the amount of reps that Will (McBride) gained from the game on Saturday. There’s always little nuances, there’s always pretty neat storylines. Here’s Will McBride, his family is at home and they’re celebrating his brother’s birthday and they’re watching the game, and all of a sudden it kind of turned into a Will McBride watch party. Their family was ecstatic and excited to be able to turn the birthday party into watching their son and their brother play, so that was pretty neat.”
On which wide receivers need to step up in the absence of Marquez Callaway:
“I think with the reps Josh Palmer is receiving, he’ll continue to grow and develop as a true freshman. Jordan Murphy had his first career catch. Saturday night, we’re going to lean a lot more (about) him. Jeff George has played a lot of football for us. Tyler Byrd will be more involved in the offensive game plan as well. These individuals continue to work, and I expect them to be ready come Saturday.”
On what has led to the defense creating more turnovers in recent games:
“I think it’s just constantly stressing it every single day in practice. I think what you make important is going to be important. When you start to create turnovers, it also generates a level of confidence as well.”
On Jarrett Guarantano’s decision making on Saturday:
“I was really pleased with the rhythm, the spacing and the timing of the throw game. He was much more decisive in the throws. He seemed a lot more confident throwing off the platform in the pocket and understanding where he was going with the football, whether it was a post-snap read or going through his progressions once the ball was snapped.”
On Mizzou’s defensive improvement:
“That’s a good question. I love their style of play. They’re very active. They’re very disruptive. They’ve had pretty much the same starting lineup. Those players have really come together. They’re playing as a unit. I think they’re playing with a lot of confidence. That’s what winning does.”
On Mizzou’s quarterback Drew Lock:
“I think Drew Lock is a challenge. He has as quick of a release as anybody. We have faced probably the best, in terms of that. He can make all the throws. He has a live arm. They play to his skill set. It’s hard to get to him. As a defensive front, you can’t get frustrated. There are a lot of things that go into impacting the quarterback. I think the most valuable is experience. He’s played since he was a true-freshman. He plays with great confidence. He has Moxey. He has swagger when you look at the physical attributes, from his stature, to his ability to stand in the pocket and the ability to make plays with his legs when the play breaks down. With the quick release, he can make all the throws. He’s very impressive on video. He’s going to play for a long time on Sundays.”
On the possibility of Jonathan Kongbo retaining his starting job:
“He’ll have to earn that. Everything is earned through competition throughout the course of the week of practice. I thought Darrell Taylor really stepped up in the game with two sacks. Then, Kyle Phillips, he continues to be a bottle of consistency. He also had two sacks as well and was very disruptive. Nothing is given. Everything is earned. He’s going to have to earn that playing time back.”
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)