Down and Distance: 5 Feelings on ETSU 

photo by Bill Foster

The Vols clashed with regional FCS foe ETSU Saturday, and that means it’s time to get in our feelings about it.

WEATHER KINGS – For the second time in as many weeks, Tennessee’s first half of play was interrupted by lightning somewhere within the eight-mile safety radius. Even more unlikely, both weather delays featured exactly zero raindrops at the stadium. Unlike last week however, Tennessee reemerged from the weather delay better than before.  Against West Virginia, the Vols had looked somewhat stable before the delay. Afterward, West Virginia absolutely brought it.  This week, Tennessee came out looking pedestrian against ETSU until the lightning came.  Afterwards, Tennessee looked like…an SEC team totally dominating an FCS bottom feeder in every phase of the game. Shocking!

REDEMPTION SONG: This summer, Vol fans were thrilled when the very talented but very unlucky linebacker Darrin Kirkland jr. changed course, staying with Vols instead of transferring. DK’s career began with an incredible freshman campaign in 2015, only to give way to two years of frustration and injury. But after leading the team in tackles against WV, Kirkland snagged a tipped ETSU pass and ran it all the way back, in a true storybook moment. It was a great moment for a kid who has worked hard to fight his way back from adversity.

LINE ERROR: Tennessee has shown some flashes at RB, WR, and LB over the first two weeks of 2018. What it hasn’t done is show any kind of chemistry along the offensive line. After showing very little push against WV, the Vols lost starting center Brandon Kennedy for the season to an injury sustained at practice. The result was a, yet again, shuffled line that struggled early to protect starting QB Jarrett Guarantano. Luckily, Tennessee was playing against extremely reduced competition, and ETSU didn’t make Tennessee pay for their lack of effectiveness.  Obviously, Tennessee still hung 59 points on the board, but the time for Pruitt and OL Coach Will Friend to figure out the offensive line is running out.  Real competition comes to Knoxville two weeks from today, and unlike ETSU, Florida will make Tennessee pay for a lack of answers up front.

DEPTH CHARGE: One of the big opportunities when playing a lesser-than opponent (aka a “cupcake”) is getting game-reps for your bench, and seeing what you’ve got.  This is especially relevant for the 2018 Vols, who are especially young, and especially mysterious. Generally speaking, Pruitt did get some solid reps for most positions, though his “scripted” use of second-string QB Keller Chryst felt extremely limited. We only got to see the Stanford transfer throw three times, during which he went 3-3 for 70yds, including a gorgeous bomb to Jordan Murphy. Guarantano didn’t have a bad day, going 8-13 for 154 yards, all in spite of lackluster protection. For a team so concerned with developing depth, though, the “script” for involving Chryst so minimally, the priority seems to be continuing to settle Guarantano into the offense. Given the poor QB protection, Pruitt and OC Tyson Helton need to get Chryst onto the field during next Saturday’s game with the lowly UTEP, before SEC competition begins and the likeliness Guarantano will be injured increases exponentially.

YOUNG BLOOD: Jeremy Pruitt hasn’t been shy about plugging  members of his inaugural recruiting class into Tennessee’s first two games. In the West Virginia game, fans saw big roles and flashes of serious ability from freshmen cornerback Alontae Taylor and safety Trayvon Flowers, as well as JUCO transfers Dominick Wood-Anderson and Jahmir Johnson.  In the ETSU game, another pair of freshmen made statements. Freshman cornerback Bryce Thompson got some reps against WV, but really arrived against ETSU. With 4 solo tackles, 2 TFL, a pass broken up, and an interception returned for 21 yards, Bryce Thompson is officially a producer in the newest version of Jeremy Pruitt’s traditionally productive defense. On the other side of the ball, Tennessee seemingly found its bellcow tailback in the small-but-violent sophomore Tim Jordan, after his fiery performance against West Virginia. A week later, the clear star of the backfield was a 6-1 211lbs freshman named Jeremy Banks.  The West TN freshman racked up 63yds and two touchdowns on 13 carries, and ran hard, low, and elusive for his size. Banks has also shown a lot of energy and personality thus far, which fills a void left by the duo of endlessly cool former Vols tailbacks John Kelly and Alvin Kamara. You can see the star in Banks, assuming he continues putting all the pieces together.

Listen to Wil Wright chat with Dan Harralson about the QB play and more here. Read his recap of the West Virginia game here.

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