There’s going to be a lot less barking surrounding Tennessee’s football program these days.
With star wide receiver Jauan Jennings likely out for the remainder of the 2017 regular season due to a dislocated wrist, the accurately dubbed “dawg” is the Vols’ second season-ending loss at a paramount position thus far. Linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. is also set to miss the entire season due to injury.
After a 2016 campaign littered with one catastrophic injury after another, it appears that the injury bug isn’t leaving Knoxville anytime soon. However, despite the losses of Jennings and Kirkland, Tennessee has enough firepower on both sides of the ball to salvage the lost production.
Running back John Kelly
Vol fans are familiar with Kelly’s abilities as a running back. After the Jalen Hurd fiasco last season, Kelly formed a lethal 1-2 punch with Alvin Kamara. Now that Kamara is in the NFL, the backfield belongs to Kelly, which was apparent on Monday evening.
What makes Kelly special is his knack for gaining yards after contact. Rarely does Kelly go down after initial contact, a skill he credits to his relentless motor.
“It’s just will power,” Kelly said with his classic postgame vibrance following Tennessee’s 42-41 win over Georgia Tech. “I feel like I want it (extra yards) more.”
Offensive Lineman Trey Smith
It’s only been one game, but there is complete conviction in this statement: Trey Smith is a real deal.
Even as a freshman, Smith is a man among boys, bulldozing defensive lineman in the running game and refusing to allow pressure on the quarterback.
Pay attention to the bottom half of the following play. Smith, in one of his first few plays of his college career, is already overpowering opponents.
Wide receiver Marquez Callaway
There are no shortage of athletic receivers in Knoxville. However, there are a shortage of good athletic receivers. Luckily for Tennessee, Callaway fits both molds perfectly.
Even with Jennings in, there were questions as to whether Tennessee had a legitimate No. 2 option at wide receiver. That question was answered, but now Callaway must take on the No. 1 role, something he’s more than capable of after a flawless performance against Georgia Tech, where he caught all four passes aimed his way for 117 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensive Lineman Darrell Taylor
Before Monday night’s game, Darrell Taylor was known as the “#WGWTFA” guy during last year’s showdown with Virginia Tech in The Battle at Bristol. Now, he’s the hero Tennessee’s defense needed in the most crucial moment of Monday’s game.
Oh, what a difference a year makes.
But Taylor wasn’t a one-play wonder. Early on in the game, he dominated Georgia Tech’s offensive line and made like hell for the Yellow Jackets’ triple option. Unfortunately for Taylor, the defense wasn’t assisted by the offense early on in the game, leading to fatigue. The Vols allowed 535 rushing yards in large part to their defensive line losing at the point of attack, but under normal circumstances against a traditional offense, Taylor will flourish for 60 minutes.
Linebacker Daniel Bituli
Bituli recorded an absurd 23 tackles against Georgia Tech, which suggests two things. 1) Tennessee’s defense was on the field way too long, and 2) Bituli has a nose for the football. While Colton Jumper has a high football IQ but mediocre athleticism, Bituli is both a high-IQ linebacker and a premier athlete. With Kirkland out for the season, the sophomore will likely take his spot as the team’s best linebacker.