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Stop John Kelly, and you stop Tennessee

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If Tennessee is able to get running back John Kelly some space, he could carry the Vols to an upset of Missouri. But there’s been no space of late.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee was destined to have a pretty mediocre offense this season. The Vols were replacing quarterback Josh Dobbs, do-everything running back Alvin Kamara, and three of their top four receiving targets (Josh Malone, tight end Jason Croom, and Kamara).

Plus, after letting mostly uninspiring offensive coordinator Mike Debord walk (perhaps with a bit of a shove) to Indiana, head coach Butch Jones replaced him with ... an uninspiring offensive coordinator. Lifetime position coach Larry Scott took the job, and the odds were good that his first year was going to be pretty hit or miss.

The Vols had found lightning in a bottle last November, suddenly becoming the best offense in the country thanks to defensive injuries that forced the forever paranoid Jones to utilize healthy doses of space and risk and unleash Dobbs and Kamara on the world. They averaged 48 points per game over their final five games, peaking at 63 against Mizzou. But given an offseason and a new coordinator, it was time to go back to UT’s “do as little as possible and don’t screw the defense” ways. In theory.

Injuries derailed any hope of that actually working. Right tackle Chance Hall was lost for the year in camp. Receiver Jauan Jennings, from whom I expected a big year, was lost for the season almost right after it started. Quarterback Quinten Dormady stunk, then got hurt. The two-deep for both the receiving corps and offensive line have been revolving doors.

The result: an offense almost as bad as Mizzou’s 2015 attack. The Vols currently rank 120th in Off. S&P+. To say the least, it’s holding back a top-40 defense.

Backfield

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Kentucky
Jarrett Guarantano
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

QB

  • Probable: Jarrett Guarantano (6’4, 200, RSFr.) — 59-for-94, 575 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT, 21 sacks, 3.6 yards per attempt (inc. sacks); 34 carries, 143 yards (4.2), 1 TD
  • Will McBride (6’1, 195, Fr.) — 1-for-8, 13 yards, 1 sack (0.9); 3 carries, 12 yards (4.0)
  • Out: Quinten Dormady (6’4, 222, Jr.) — 76-for-137, 925 yards, 6 TD, 6 INT, 3 sacks (6.5); 8 carries, 32 yards (4.0)

TB

  • John Kelly (5’9, 205, Jr.) — 145 carries, 694 yards (4.8), 8 TD; 33 targets, 27 catches, 250 yards (7.6)
  • Ty Chandler (5’11, 195, Fr.) — 60 carries, 253 yards (4.2), 2 TD; 10 targets, 9 catches, 101 yards (10.1)
  • Carlin Fils-aime (5’11, 183, So.) — 24 carries, 147 yards (6.1), 2 TD; 2 targets, 2 catches, 18 yards
  • Tim Jordan (5’11, 196, Fr.) — 10 carries, 47 yards (4.7); 5 targets, 5 catches, 21 yards (4.2)

The Vols have John Kelly and ... that’s more or less it. Kelly rushed for 101 yards against Mizzou last year and was averaging 6.2 yards per carry three games into the season. He’s averaged 3.9 since.

Jarrett Guarantano replaced Dormady and has averaged under four yards per pass attempt (including sacks). Guarantano briefly got hurt last week against Southern Miss (the injury actually looked really bad, and I assumed he was done for the year, but apparently not), so Jones tore off Will McBride’s redshirt for him to go 1-for-8 with a sack.

Since scoring 42 points in each of the first two games, the Vols have since averaged 14.7 per game. They went a month without an offensive touchdown. They scored 24 on Southern Miss last week, but it took two turnovers deep in USM territory to make that happen. Guarantano is a former four-star recruit and could still turn into something, but throwing him into the shark tank this year has not paid off. Another point of similarity with 2015 Mizzou.

Receiving Corps

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Tennessee
Brandon Johnson
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

WR

  • Brandon Johnson (6’2, 193, So.) — 38 targets, 25 catches, 305 yards (8.0), 1 TD
  • Tyler Byrd (6’0, 195, So.) — 13 targets, 3 catches, 27 yards (2.1), 1 TD; 2 carries, 19 yards
  • Out: Josh Smith (6’1, 206, Sr.) — 14 targets, 5 catches, 43 yards (3.1)

WR

  • Doubtful: Marquez Callaway (6’2, 199, So.) — 31 targets, 19 catches, 318 yards (10.3), 3 TD
  • Jeff George (6’6, 198, Sr.) — 10 targets, 6 catches, 100 yards (10.0), 1 TD

WR

  • Josh Palmer (6’2, 198, Fr.) — 22 targets, 8 catches, 93 yards (4.2)
  • Jordan Murphy (5’11, 170, Fr.) — 2 targets, 1 catch, 12 yards (6.0)
  • Out: Latrell Williams (5’11, 175, RSFr.)

TE

  • Ethan Wolf (6’6, 258, Sr.) — 28 targets, 17 catches, 154 yards (5.5), 1 TD
  • Jakob Johnson (6’3, 250, Sr.)
  • Austin Pope (6’4, 230, RSFr.) — 5 targets, 2 catches, 9 yards (1.8)
  • Eli Wolf (6’4, 224, So.) — 2 targets, 2 catches, 29 yards (14.5)

This being Tennessee, there’s plenty of talent in the Vols’ receiving corps. Callaway and Byrd are both former mid-four-star recruits, and Ethan Wolf and Murphy both just missed out on four-star designations. But with Callaway nursing an ankle injury, it looks like it’s going to be Johnson (mid-three-star), Palmer (mid-three-star) and the lanky George (high-three-star) seeing most of the targets with Wolf and Byrd.

Callaway’s likely absence hurts Tennessee quite a bit, as he and backup George have been the only real big-play threats in this unit. Johnson is a strong possession guy, but he and Callaway are the only guys with a 45 percent or better success rate. Byrd and Palmer, meanwhile, have combined to catch just 11 of 35 passes thrown their way. We’ll see if they fare better facing what is still not exactly the greatest secondary in the world on Saturday evening.

Beware the checkdowns and screens, by the way. Tennessee RBs have combined for 50 targets, 43 catches, and 390 yards. Aside from Johnson, the backs might be the best way for Tennessee to move the chains through the air.

Offensive Line

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Georgia Tech
Jashon Robertson
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

LT

  • Questionable: Drew Richmond (6’5, 309, So.) — 7 starts in 2017, 13 career starts
  • Nathan Niehaus (6’6, 285, RSFr.)

LG

  • Jashon Robertson (6’3, 300, Sr.) — 8 starts in 2017, 43 career starts
  • Out: Jack Jones (6’4, 312, Jr.) — 3 starts in 2017, 10 career starts

C

  • Coleman Thomas (6’5, 309, Sr.) — 4 starts in 2017, 34 career starts

RG

  • Trey Smith (6’6, 320, Fr.) — 9 starts in 2017, 9 career starts
  • Ryan Johnson (6’6, 300, RSFr.) — 1 start in 2017, 1 career start

RT

  • Devante Brooks (6’5, 282, RSFr.) — 1 start in 2017, 1 career start
  • Riley Locklear (6’5, 295, Fr.)
  • Questionable: Brett Kendrick (6’6, 318, Sr.) — 8 starts in 2017, 28 career starts
  • Questionable: Marcus Tatum (6’6, 281, So.) — 3 starts in 2017

Tennessee currently ranks a ghastly 114th in Adj. Sack Rate, thanks as much to Guarantano as the line itself, but the run blocking has been decent: the Vols are 34th in Adj. Line Yards and 15th in power success rate. Considering the injuries they’ve dealt with up front, that’s not bad.

If the Vols can stay on schedule with Kelly and the running backs and keep Guarantano out of obvious passing situations, they might be able to string together enough scoring drives to put the Mizzou offense in must-score situations. It does bear mentioning that Kelly is very much the best back the Tigers have faced since Georgia.

If Mizzou’s run front holds up the way it has of late, though, and forces Guarantano to make plays behind schedule, the odds of Missouri winning this game are very, very good.