Here are five things we learned about Tennessee after the 62-24 massacre at Missouri.
- Hendon Hooker is clearly UT’s best quarterback
Hooker, who didn’t start until Joe Milton was hurt in Game 2, was outstanding against Missouri. The Virginia Tech transfer was 15 of 19 passing (one was dropped and one was a throwaway) for 225 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran 14 times for 74 yards and a score. Coming off an injury at Florida, Hooker wasn’t cleared to play until late in the week. But he led the Vols on scoring drives on nine of 10 possessions and it would have been 10 for 10 if not for a questionable call on a Tiyan Evans run. Hooker’s accuracy, running ability, decision making and coolness under fired have convinced me UT can score 30 points on every team it plays the rest of the season not named Alabama or Georgia. I rank him as the No. 7 QB in the SEC now – and he could move up the ladder.
- UT’s run defense is really good, with one caveat.
Run defense was a concern entering this season. The Vols had allowed over 141.6 rush yards per game last year, surrendered at least 165 rush yards to six opponents and wasn’t sure after a coaching change which players would return. Turns out, several six-year seniors re-invested in the program and, turns out, the hire of defensive line coach Rodney Garner was critical. When not facing a team with a standout running quarterback, UT’s run defense has been outstanding. The Vols held Missouri to 74 yards – less than half the Tigers’ average. And against the four teams that didn’t have Emory Jones at quarterback, the Vols are allowing 59.3 rush yards per game and 1.88 yards per carry. Those numbers would rank first in the SEC – ahead of even Georgia — if you could take out the Florida game. UT faces only one other quarterback likely to run a dozen times in a game – Matt Corral at Ole Miss. That’s a good sign for UT’s run defense.
- Tiyan Evans is a big-time SEC running back.
The junior college transfer made a huge splash in his Tennessee debut, rushing for 120 yards and a touchdown against lowly Bowling Green. He missed the Pitt game for a non-injury reason, then didn’t run hard in gaining just 41 yards against Tennessee Tech. After being called out by his position coach, Evans responded with 121 yards from the line of scrimmage at Florida and 156 yards and three touchdowns (almost four) on 15 carries against Missouri. He spearheaded a run game that mauled Missouri for 452 yards. Evans has speed, power, cutting ability, vision and toughness. And he now ranks third in the SEC in rushing per game (91.75) behind only Chris Rodriguez of Kentucky (122.4) and Brian Robinson at Alabama (94.75). Even behind an average-at-best offensive line, Evans should rush for over 1,000 yards this season. He was the No. 1 rated junior college back in the country, and at Hartsville (S.C.) High School (home of Albert Haynesworth), he rushed for over 2,000 yards as a sophomore and junior and 1,400 more when moved to quarterback as a senior. He’s the real deal.
- Velus Jones Jr. is effective in the slot
Tennessee moved Jones to the slot against Missouri and made a concerted effort to get him the ball. It worked. Jones led the Vols with seven catches for 79 yards and a touchdown. Jones is dynamic in space, as evidenced by the fact he has more career kickoff return yards than any other active player on the FBS level. Look for Jones, a fifth-year senior who has never caught more than 24 passes in a season (USC in 2018) to emerge as UT’s leading receiver.
- You can run the clock even if your base offense is high octane
Tennessee went up-tempo in building a 45-10 halftime lead against Missouri. At one point UT had five touchdowns in about five minutes time of possession. But in the second half, there was no reason to go high octane. Milking the clock, keeping your defense off the field and limiting Missouri possessions was all that was needed to score a one-sided win. And that’s what UT did. While still going no-huddle, UT ran the clock before snapping the ball. Instead of running 3.1 plays per minute, UT ran about 1.5 plays per minute. As a result, Tennessee had just four second-half possessions and Missouri had three (including one at the end of the game when the clock ran out). You can’t rally from 35 down if you only get three possessions. That was textbook clock management by the Vols.