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Prediction: Here’s where Tennessee has to get better against UTSA

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Tennessee is coming off a surprisingly inept performance at Florida, losing at The Swamp for the 10th consecutive time.

The Vols didn’t run the ball well and didn’t stop the run. Quarterback Joe Milton had a supbar game. The defense allowed Florida to convert 7-of-8 third-down conversions in the first half. The defense also missed 11 tackles, many by the secondary.

How will the Vols bounce back against the University of Texas at San Antonio?

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It’s hard to say.

Milton must play better. The offensive line must play better. The defense must tackle better.

But one thing that disturbs me is coach Josh Heupel said some of the tackling issues were lack of effort.

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That’s a red flag. That should never be the case.

I don’t expect to see a lack of effort against UTSA. If there is, Tennessee is in trouble and the lack-of-effort culprits wouldn’t play another snap for me.

Here are a few notes about the UT v. UTSA game:  

Offensive line was poor against Florida

Tennessee’s offensive line has been subpar this season.

I don’t evaluate their performance against weak competition (re: Virginia, Austin Peay).

I evaluate it against good opponents, SEC opponents. And against Florida last Saturday, the unit graded out to no better than a D. They had four false starts and three holding infractions.

That’s a huge concern going forward.

The Vols miss right tackle Darnell Wright (the No. 10 overall pick in the NFL draft) and guard Jerome Carvin, a road grader as a blocker.

They also miss senior center Cooper Mays, who hasn’t played since having hernia surgery in mid-August.

It’s hard to quantify Mays’ absence. Would the offensive line communication be better? Would UT block opposing noseguards better? Would the Vols play faster and avoid calling two timeouts on one drive to avoid delay of game?

You could say yes to all four, but how much difference would that make in the offense’s production? A touchdown per game? Three first downs per game? Fifty more rushing yards per game?

It’s hard to say.  

But without Mays against Florida, Tennessee’s offensive line wasn’t very good. Much of the yards gained by running backs came after contact at or near the line of scrimmage.

It will be interesting to see how UT runs the ball against a UTSA team that allows 128.7 rushing yards and 2.9 yards per carry.

Inside linebacker play must improve

Tennessee might miss inside linebacker Keenan Pili more than it misses Mays.

The Vols defense was porous in the first half against the Gators, allowing third-down conversions and explosive runs.

Sophomore Elijah Herring has started the last two games.

“I thought he was better against Florida than he was against Austin Peay,’’ said UT linebackers coach Brian Jean Mary. “You really saw him grow in the second half.’’

In the first half, Herring had trouble getting off blocks and got out of position based on Florida’s motion.

Herring should be better against UTSA than he was against Florida.

Meanwhile, outside linebacker Aaron Beasley continues to impress. He leads the Vols with 20 tackles and seven tackles for loss. He has two sacks.

“He’s probably the definition of perseverance,’’ Mary said. “He’s been as good as anybody in the country these first three weeks.’’

Wide receivers needs to step up

While Milton has not performed at the level I expected, neither have the Vols’ wide receivers.

Oregon transfer Don’t’e Thornton has been a disappointment. He has five catches in three games with a couple of drops.

Bru McCoy has 12 catches for 166 yards, including five for 94 and a touchdown at Florida. He needs to be targeted more. He has also proven to be a powerful blocker.

Squirrel White has 13 catches for 143 yards. He is UT’s most elusive run-after-catch wideout. He can make the first defender miss. I’m not sure UT has another receiver than can do that.

Senior Ramel Keyton has 11 catches for 157 yards and two scores. He had the glaring drop against Virginia, but otherwise has been pretty consistent.

The receivers have dropped too many passes, not made enough big plays and not run free in the secondary like last year’s group.

Collectively, they need to step up.

Roadrunners have 2 local ties

UTSA has two players on the roster from Tennessee. Fifth-year senior WR Tykee Ogle-Kellogg (6-5, 225) played at Alcoa HS. Middle linebacker Martavius French (a junior) is from Memphis and was on the UT roster in 2020. He transferred to Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, then USTA.

French played at Whitehaven with Vols Tamarion McDonald and Bryson Eason.

Ogle-Kellogg, who starts, is second on the team with 10 receptions for 140 yards and one touchdown.

French, a backup, leads the team with 17 tackles (seven solo). He has one quarterback hurry.

Prediction: Tennessee 38, USTA 13

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