ATHENS, GA - OCTOBER 1: Jauan Jennings #15 of the Tennessee Volunteers rides the shoulders of Gavin Bryant #36 after making the game winning catch against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on October 1, 2016 in Athens, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Q&A with a Tennessee beat writer

For insight on Georgia Tech’s opponent in Monday night’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, we turn to Volunteers beat writer Mike Griffith, who covers the team for SEC Country. You can find him on Twitter here and his work here. Our thanks to Mike for sharing his time and insight.

Q: At this point, what can the Tennessee offense count on the most?

A: Running back John Kelly. Kelly, a junior from Detroit, is one of the team leaders and certainly regarded as one of the toughest players on the team. Michigan and Michigan State recruited Kelly as a safety. Kelly emerged last season after Jalen Hurd left the team and Alvin Kamara suffered a knee injury in October. There’s nothing fancy about Kelly, he’s north and south, durable, and versatile enough to run inside or outside or catch the football. If Kelly gets 25-30 touches vs. Georgia Tech, I would not be surprised.

Q: How important is linebacker Darrin Kirkland to the Tennessee defense and what does it mean to have him sit out with a knee injury? 

A: Kirkland is a 6-foot-1, 238-pound NFL talent, but the truth is he hasn’t been the same since suffering a high ankle sprain in Tennessee’s 45-24 “Battle of Bristol” win over Virginia Tech in the second game of the 2016 season. Kirkland missed six weeks and when he returned he was not healthy…. he suffered a pulled hamstring and missed part of spring, and then he had arthroscopic knee surgery in June, forcing him to miss the start of fall camp.

So while Tennessee was hopeful to have him, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop knew to hedge his bets and has been working Colton Jumper there throughout the entirety. Jumper does not have Kirkland’s athleticism, but he’s tough and assignment sound, and so unless Georgia Tech spreads the field, I don’t think Kirkland will be missed — in this particular game — as much as one might think. 

Q: The Tech offense can struggle when faced with physical, active defensive tackles who can get into the backfield and disrupt the timing of the offense. (Though it can probably be said of any offense that physical, active defensive tackles are disruptive.) How is Tennessee in that category?A: This could be the question that ultimately determines the outcome of the game, and it’s a bit of a mystery because of what the Vols lost, and the new and improved version they have coming back. Starting defensive ends Corey Vereen and Derek Barnett have moved on, but Tennessee thinks Jonathan Kongbo, Darrell Taylor and Kyle Phillips will be adequate stepping into those roles at defensive end.

Most importantly Tennessee will be much better at defensive tackle than last November, when ive of the top six defensive tackles were sidelined by injuries. Kendal Vickers is a returning senior starter, a junior Reginald McKenzie Jr. is a former 5-star recruit the Vols are still waiting to see blossom.

The key guy here could be junior Shy Tuttle, a fantastic talent who is questionable for the game. Tuttle suffered a knee injury against South Carolina last October, and returning to play a cut-blocking team isn’t exactly the ideal situation. Alexis Johnson is a kid from Atlanta who will be pumped up in the trenches and bears watching at DT.

Q: What’s a reasonable expectation for wins?

A: The bar at Tennessee is set at eight wins, even if this is very much a transition year with a new quarterback and several young players at the skill positions. The Georgia Tech game is one of four “swing” contests that could go either way — Georgia, Florida and LSU are the others. It’s hard to imagine the Vols beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa, so put that one in the “L” column in ink. Tennessee needs to beat the SEC teams it’s supposed to beat — Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina, and avoid the upsets against Indiana State, UMass and Southern Miss. 

Q: Does this game being an ACC-SEC matchup register with Tennessee players?

A: I don’t think that matters to the players at all, so much as playing in the new stadium on a Monday night in a hyped-up environment. It’s somewhat similar to the Battle at Bristol, and Georgia Tech appears to be just as dangerous as Virginia Tech was for the Vols. Tennessee has heard Paul Johnson’s confident talks, and the Vols are well aware the Yellow Jackets went 3-0 vs. the SEC last season, so no one is taking the game lightly.

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