AUBURN, Ala. — As we do every Thursday evening, the War Eagle Extra blog was able to track down a beat writer for Auburn's opponent this weekend. Patrick Brown (@patrickbrownTFP), who covers Tennessee for the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Chattanooga, Tenn., took time to answer five questions about the Volunteers before they host the Tigers on Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn.
Ryan Black: The coaching staff didn't seem to show any hesitancy letting true freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs air it out last week, as he threw it 42 times against Missouri. Do you get a sense they'll do the same this week, or do you think they'll try to keep it closer to 25-30 attempts for a player making just his second career start?
Patrick Brown: I can't believe that was part of the game plan going into that game for Tennessee, but I do think there were a couple of things that dictated that. First, the Vols were down 24-3 at halftime, but more importantly they were getting very little in the run game. Tennessee ran for only 94 yards against Missouri, and 33 of that came on a Dobbs' run when he kept it on a zone-read option.
By no means was Dobbs perfect in Columbia, but he showed some of what he can do while also making some typical freshman mistakes. He threw two interceptions, though a tight end missed a block and allowed a defensive end to hit his arm from behind as he threw for one of them. The other was forced into double coverage, and he fumbled on a play where he probably should have scrambled out of bounds. Tennessee didn't give him much help around him with a handful of penalties and a dropped touchdown pass.
I don't think they wanted him to have close to 50 touches (he also ran it 7 times) in his first start, but I think he probably gave them a little bit of confidence in him in terms of trust. The first thing anyone will tell you about Dobbs is how smart and intelligent he is, and his running ability adds a dimension to Tennessee's offense that Justin Worley did not. The Vols have to be careful, though, because if he went down, I'm not sure who would step in. Riley Ferguson is a freshman they want to redshirt who's not 100 percent, and Nathan Peterman only returned to practice this week. I think most remember how it went the last time he played.
Black: One of the more interesting stories (to me, at least) to emerge earlier this week was head coach Butch Jones calling out his offensive line and dubbing them "Club 90" to denote the number of rushing yards the team gained against Missouri. (For instance, I couldn't see Gus Malzahn doing something like that in a million years.) Since I don't profess to know Jones' media tendencies well, is taking his players to task in the media something he does often? If so, how do you view this approach? And more importantly, how has the team typically responded? If this is a rare occurrence, do you think it'll pay dividends this weekend?
Brown: Derek Dooley caught a lot of flack for being rather blunt about his players to the media, but to me that's one of those deals where if you're winning and calling out guys, it's, "That's funny, what a great motivator," but if you're losing, it's, "Hey, these players don't want to play hard for a guy that dogs them publicly."
Of course, Jones' comments in this instance came in practice. He uses a wireless microphone during his practices so he can coach from anywhere on the field and not lose his voice, and it's something he started at Cincinnati. So him calling out guys — and he does it every day — is nothing new to the players, who have come to expect it and have learned to either block it out or "take the hidden message," as one player put it this week.
As it pertains to this offensive line, I think this is a group that can take hard coaching. Tennessee's linemen have built the reputation as the hardest workers on the team, and they know they've not played well enough the past two weeks. I don't think there's any delicate psyches with that bunch, because I don't think you could play on the offensive line in the SEC with one.
Tennessee's offensive line has four seniors and a junior that's likely going to the NFL draft after this season, and they've played a bunch of games and most of them together. That's why Jones was so disappointed in how they played at Missouri, and he's been on them this week in practice. I think the expectations for them were maybe a little too high going into the season, but they've not taken over a game like you'd want your best unit to do.
Black: I know it's easy to quantify in numbers how good linebacker A.J. Johnson is: second in the SEC in tackles per game with 8.4; double-digit tackles in more than half (17 of 34) of his games at Tennessee; led the league in tackles last season with 138. I could keep naming things, but I need to get to the question at some point. So here we go: In your time on the beat, have you covered a better defender on a daily basis? How high does he already rank on the list of all-time best defensive players Tennessee has produced? And do you think his accomplishments have been somewhat overlooked due to the Volunteers' underwhelming efforts as a team during his three seasons?
Brown: I came on the beat in 2010, so I just missed Eric Berry's career.
The thing with Johnson, and the coaches often push and prod him with this, is that most of his tackles occur five yards or more past the line of the scrimmage. In the spring, it was all about getting him to make more disruptive plays: sacks, forced fumbles, tackles for loss. We've yet to see a big uptick in those this season.
The knock on Johnson is how he plays in space, and obviously Auburn will test that on Saturday. Against the Alabamas and the Georgias of the world, Johnson thrives because he's at his best between the tackles, in the trenches and facing a running back in a hole. Get a slot receiver on him, and that's where the problem starts, but then again, what middle linebacker can cover a slot guy one-on-one?
Johnson had a great freshman season for a defense that finished around 30th in yards allowed, but he was the best player on a bad defense — as in the worst statistically in Tennessee's history — last season. He's got exceptional instincts that always get him near the ball, but his game does have some weaknesses.
Black: Entering this weekend, the Volunteers own a 4-5 record. Is this close to what you expected for the team at this point? Is it a little better/worse? And as I like asking most beat writers with relatively-new coaches, have you seen the team make progress in areas that suggest Jones can turn this around quickly? Or is this going to be a long-term rebuilding process?
Brown: I thought Tennessee would have to win three of four in November to reach six wins, which is what they're aiming for and would qualify as a successful season, especially considering Tennessee will end up playing seven ranked teams. (Auburn is the third straight top-10 opponents the Vols have faced.)
So the Vols were a game ahead of schedule heading out of October after the upset of South Carolina. And given how Missouri and Auburn have looked, it was good they got that one in terms of those postseason hopes. That win over the Gamecocks was the program's first against a ranked team in four years.
This isn't going to be a quick fix for the Vols and Jones, but it's hard to say anything other than they're off to a good start. This team is undermanned. The defense, as mentioned above, was a train wreck last year, and they've played all of the season without Curt Maggitt and most of it without Mo Couch — two two-year starters.
Obviously the offense lost so much at receiver and tight end and had to replace Tyler Bray. The Vols had three receivers who caught a pass in a college game entering the season, and one of those left mid-season. The Vols' top receivers are a sophomore, two true freshmen and a redshirt freshman. Tennessee's on its third quarterback, too.
The good news for Jones is the class they threw together in a month last year already appears to have some contributors and some difference-makers, and Tennessee is in the top five in just about every recruiting ranking that exists. The Vols already have 29 commitments, have locked down some of the best players in the state and added some guys at positions of need.
The two big chores Jones faces is (a) changing the mindset of a program that's done a lot of losing and gone through change after change after change the past five or six seasons and (b) upgrading the talent on the roster, and he appears to be off to a decent start in both.
Black: I have to end with this: With three games left, Tennessee needs two wins out of the group of Auburn, Vanderbilt and Kentucky to reach bowl eligibility. Do you see Tennessee pulling it off?
Brown: It's going to come down to that Vanderbilt game in two weeks. I expect the Vols to lose to Auburn on Saturday, and they should beat Kentucky in Lexington, though I will say I thought that in 2011, too. Tennessee's been much better at home this season, so I would pick them to beat Vanderbilt if they were playing on Saturday. After playing at Florida on Saturday, the Commodores are at home against Kentucky while the Vols have their second open date.