Tennessee coach Butch Jones wants to make sure the Volunteers’ season doesn’t end in November again anytime soon.
“It’s expected we go to bowl games from here on out,” Jones said. “That’s our goal.”
Tennessee will have a better chance of earning that first bowl bid since 2010 next year if it shows the big-play ability it displayed Saturday in a 27-14 season-ending victory at Kentucky.
After struggling to create explosive plays on both sides of the ball all season, Tennessee had three touchdowns of at least 40 yards and produced five sacks against Kentucky.
Before Saturday, Tennessee’s offense hadn’t produced a touchdown of at least 40 yards since Rajion Neal capped the Vols’ first drive of the season with a 47-yard run in a 45-0 triumph over Austin Peay. The Vols headed to Kentucky on a four-game skid in which they’d recorded just one sack. The lack of big plays was a major reason the Vols (5-7, 2-6 SEC) had a fourth straight losing season, the first time that’s happened at Tennessee since 1903-06.
“We see what happens when we create big plays,” Jones said. “It creates momentum and touchdowns obviously.”
The big plays came from seniors finishing their college careers as well as underclassmen making a statement for the future.
Corey Miller capped his career by delivering 4 ½ sacks to break the single-game record formerly held by Reggie White, who had four sacks against The Citadel on Oct. 1, 1983. It was a stunning accomplishment for a senior who had entered the night with five career sacks.
“I’m speechless about that,” Miller said. “You never think something like that is going to happen, especially in the last game of your career.”
Neal ran for 134 yards and scored on a career-long 60-yard burst to finish his senior season with 1,124 yards rushing. Freshman quarterback Joshua Dobbs scored on a 40-yard run and threw two touchdown passes, including a 43-yarder to Jason Croom, who broke his collarbone later in the game.
The Vols need more of those big plays next year.
Tennessee relied on its veteran offensive line to lead the team on sustained drives this season, but the makeup of next year’s team will be very different. The Vols will have to replace their entire starting offensive and defensive lines if junior offensive tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson forgoes his senior season to enter the NFL Draft.
The inexperience on both sides of the line of scrimmage makes it more imperative that Tennessee gets more explosive. Tennessee’s lack of overall speed is glaring when it faces top SEC foes. Jones hopes that changes with the arrival of a 2014 recruiting class that he says will include 14 early enrollees.
“That’s the No. 1 goal in recruiting,” Jones said. “We must improve our team speed at every single position.”
Jones also must decide on a quarterback.
This season, Tennessee started three different quarterbacks who all have eligibility remaining. Justin Worley started seven of the first eight games before injuring his right thumb. Dobbs started the final four games. Nathan Peterman started a September loss to Florida in which he got injured. Tennessee also is high on freshman Riley Ferguson, who redshirted this season while dealing with a leg injury.
“I’m excited because it’s going to be a heck of a quarterback battle all spring,” Jones said.
On defense, Tennessee could lose its entire starting front seven if linebacker A.J. Johnson passes up his senior season to enter the draft. The Vols should get a boost from the return of linebacker Curt Maggitt, a two-year starter who redshirted this season while recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The importance of an improved pass rush is evident from the Vols’ results. Tennessee had 14 sacks in its five wins and four sacks in its seven losses this season.