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VOL. 39 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 6, 2015

UT-South Carolina won’t be the same without the head ball coach

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South Carolina interim head coach Shawn Elliott during the second half of the Gamecocks’ game against Texas A&M on Saturday.

-- Ap Photo/Eric Gay

I miss Steve Spurrier. It won’t be the same without Spurrier coaching South Carolina when Tennessee (4-4, 2-3 SEC) plays host to the Gamecocks (3-5, 1-5) on Saturday.

It wasn’t the same this week without Spurrier throwing a jab or two at UT leading up to the game.

Spurrier, the coach UT fans loved to hate, resigned as South Carolina’s coach Oct. 13, three days after a 45-24 loss to LSU left the Gamecocks 2-4 overall and 0-4 in the SEC.

Instead of booing Spurrier on Saturday, UT fans will see interim head coach Shawn Elliott leading the Gamecocks, and that’s not necessarily good news for the Vols.

South Carolina has played better in two games under Elliott than it did the first six games under Spurrier, the Vols’ nemesis while head coach at Florida (1990-2001).

The Gamecocks were going nowhere this year under Spurrier, who said upon resigning, “It’s time for me to get out of the way and let somebody else have a go at it.”

Elliott is the guy for now, and seems like a natural.

The Camden, S.C., native grew up a South Carolina Gamecocks fan. His father was a highway patrolman and used to work South Carolina football games. His brother is a South Carolina graduate.

Elliott makes it no secret he wants to be South Carolina’s next head coach, and he is treating the rest of this season like a job interview.

He promised to bring energy to the team, and thus far says the players have responded.

“As far as my energy, the energy, I would like to think it helps,” Elliott said during his weekly teleconference last Sunday. “Our practices are a little bit more upbeat, and our guys are running around a little bit and enjoying the practice time a little bit more than they did previously.”

It seems to have helped on game days. In his first game as interim coach Oct. 17, the inspired Gamecocks beat Vanderbilt 19-10 in Columbia, S.C.

South Carolina had a bye week Oct. 24, and last Saturday pushed Texas A&M to the final minute before losing 35-28. The Gamecocks were driving for the potential tying (or winning) score when freshman quarterback Perry Orth’s pass was intercepted.

“It’s just a real disappointment to fight and do the things we did and have an opportunity there at the end to make a play and maybe win the football and just didn’t get it done,” Elliott said.

“But Texas A&M, hats off to those guys. … We’ve got to erase this, move forward and get our heads back on straight and see what we can do with the Vols this week.”

Elliott joined Spurrier’s staff in 2010 as running game coordinator, a position he held for two years before being promoted to co-offensive coordinator in 2012. He was offensive line coach this year before getting his interim head coach position.

Elliott says he has noticed a different attitude in the players since he took over.

“What a talented back, probably one of the premier backs in our league, and he has all the tools to be just one of those old time Tennessee backs,” South Carolina interim coach Shawn Elliot says of Tennessee running back Jalen Hurd.

-- Ruth Dudley /Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“The things that are jumping out is just how much at times these guys weren’t really enjoying themselves (previously),” Elliott said, “and now you just see a little bit different feel, a little bit different look in their eye, the way they walk around, the way we communicate with one another. I try to touch base with about every single player, whether they come into a meeting room or they’ll walk around in practice.

“I just feel a little different look, a little different feel. That’s something that’s changed. It’s working. Still, it’s got to produce wins. We’ve got to go out there and play better, but that’s coming along as we improved as a team (against Texas A&M).”

The Gamecocks had 424 total yards against Vanderbilt but only found the end zone once on Orth’s 78-yard touchdown pass to Pharoh Cooper. Elliott Fry kicked four field goals for South Carolina.

South Carolina had 445 yards against Texas A&M, 10th in the SEC in total defense.

“We have gotten better offensively,” Elliott said. “Against Vanderbilt, we scored 19 points, and we had (424) yards, and you’d have liked to see that be a 35- or 40-point game, but we had our red-zone struggles and that was a tough week to prepare (after Spurrier’s resignation).

“But after an open week and another full week to prepare for A&M, we had a few (new) wrinkles, and I think we’ve gotten our players in situations where they can be successful, and they are making the most of their opportunities.”

Their success the rest of the season would enhance Elliott’s chances of becoming the next head coach. South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner says Elliott would be a candidate for the full-time job after his term as interim coach.

With his team a two-touchdown underdog Saturday, Elliott can make a statement as his job interview rolls to Knoxville.

“South Carolina comes in here a very, very hungry football team,” UT coach Butch Jones said during his Monday press conference. “Coach Elliott has done a great job of really infusing energy, excitement. They’re playing loose, and you can see it. They’re a hungry football team.”

Not that the Vols should lose this one, or can afford to. Tennessee beat Kentucky 52-21 last Saturday and would finish 8-4 by winning its last four games.

UT is the superior team to South Carolina, regardless who is coaching.

3 matchups

Vols run game vs. Gamecocks’ defense

Kentucky’s run defense ranks last in the SEC – giving up 215.2 yards per game – while the Vols’ rushing game has soared to second in the league with a 214.1-yard average (behind only LSU at 309.1).

Texas A&M ran for 321 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry against the Gamecocks with speedy freshman quarterback Kyler Murray rushing for 156 yards and one touchdown.

UT was balanced against Kentucky with 273 rushing yards and 233 passing by Joshua Dobbs. Kentucky focused on stopping Jalen Hurd (61 yards on 18 carries) but gave up a 63-yard run to Alvin Kamara (70 yards on four carries) that set up a TD, and the Wildcats eventually wore down. Dobbs ran for 52 yards and true freshman John Kelly had 58.

Elliott knows the Vols present another challenge with their run game.

Josh Dobbs, shown here during last week’s game with Kentucky, had great numbers in last year’s game against South Carolina. Dobbs finished with 301 passing yards and 166 rushing yards, becoming the first UT player to have a 300-yard passing game and 100-yard rushing game the same day.

-- Hayley Pennesi/Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“They’ve got a big back (Hurd),” Elliott said. “Their quarterback is a little different than what you saw at A&M. That guy (Murray) can really get on the edge and scoot, and this guy can too. I think (Dobbs) is probably a little more polished and runs the offense very well, and he has multiple talented individuals at his disposal, so to speak.”

Elliott is especially concerned with Hurd.

“What a talented back, probably one of the premier backs in our league, and he has all the tools to be just one of those old time Tennessee backs,” Elliott said. “You think back, you think about a guy like Jay Graham playing at Tennessee (from 1993-96). He’s just very talented and boy, they’re fortunate to have him.”

Wilds vs. UT front 7

Fifth-year senior Brandon Wilds has posted back-to-back 100-yard rushing games since missing games against Central Florida, Missouri, and LSU due to a rib injury sustained against Georgia (five carries, 24 yards) on Sept. 19.

With Wilds out, South Carolina’s rushing game went stagnant. Quarterback Lorenzo Nunez (now the No. 2 QB behind Orth after a shoulder injury) was the team’s leading rusher in all three games when Wilds was injured.

Now Wilds is back and full speed. He ran for 119 yards on 24 carries against Vanderbilt and 128 yards and two TDs against Texas A&M.

Even with three sub-par games, South Carolina’s run game ranks sixth in the SEC at 178.8 yards per game, but has the third fewest rushing TDs (nine) behind Missouri (two) and Vanderbilt (seven).

UT’s run defense has been vulnerable. It’s 10th in the SEC, giving up 163.1 yards per game, and Kentucky got 165 on the ground last Saturday.

Pharoh Cooper vs. Vols’ Secondary

South Carolina junior Pharoh Cooper was the SEC’s leading returning receiver this year with 1,136 yards in 2014 while also rushing for 200 yards on his way to first-team All-SEC honors.

This season, Cooper is fourth in the SEC in catches (44) and third in receiving yards (609) with four TD catches. He’s rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries.

“We all know what Pharoh Cooper brings to the table,” Jones said. “He’s one of the most dynamic and explosive players not only in our conference but the entire country.”

5 Things to watch

Vols’ O-Line health

Injury issues continue for the Vols’ offensive line.

Offensive tackle Brett Kendrick, a third-year sophomore from Christian Academy of Knoxville, didn’t make the trip to Kentucky due to elbow and knee injuries, and WNML’s Jimmy Hyams reports Kendrick is out for the season.

Kendrick, who started the first five games this year and two games in 2014, was replaced by true freshman Chance Hall at right tackle and remains the starter for South Carolina.

UT left offensive guard Jashon Robertson returned against Kentucky from an ankle injury sustained Oct. 10 against Georgia that caused him to miss the loss at Alabama. Robertson, however, was hurt on the 11th play of UT’s first drive and replaced by Mack Crowder.

Jones expects Robertson to be ready for South Carolina.

Evan Berry, shown here in last month’s game against Georgia, had a 105-yard kickoff return against Kentucky and now leads the nation in kickoff return average.

-- Donald Page/ Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“We anticipate him being probable and being ready to go,” Jones said. “That’s a tribute to him. We thought Mack Crowder did some really good things for us at the left guard position, and when Jack (Jones) went in there he did some good things at the right guard position.”

UT Special Teams

Tennessee’s special teams continued its highlights against Kentucky with Evan Berry’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown (it was actually about 105 yards) and Cameron Sutton’s 84-yard punt return for touchdown.

Berry, the brother of Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry, leads the nation in kickoff return average (42.6 yards) and has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns, which ties Willie Gault (1980) for most in a season. His 100-yard kickoff return was the fifth in UT history and first since Leonard Scott’s in 1999.

Tennessee leads the nation in kickoff return average (40.4 yards).

“I think Evan would be the first one to tell you it’s the other ten individuals on the football field,” Jones said. “They’re taking great pride in their performance. They are taking great pride in their fundamentals.”

UT is sixth nationally in punt return average (19.1 yards).

South Carolina will be a test for UT’s special teams. The Gamecocks rank 18th in the nation in kick return defense (17.8 yards per return) and 32nd in punt return defense (5.3 yards).

UT sophomore kicker Aaron Medley made a 44-yarder against Kentucky, his only attempt of the game, but is 10 of 18 for the season and 2 of 8 from 40 or more yards. He was 1 of 6 from 40-plus yards last year.

Gamecocks’ quarterbacks

Nunez suffered the shoulder injury on the final series of South Carolina’s Oct. 3 loss at Missouri, and Orth, a true freshman, has taken over in his absence.

South Carolina sophomore Connor Mitch, who earned the starting job in the preseason, has been out since separating his shoulder and hurting his hip while diving for a first down in the Sept. 12 loss to Kentucky in the second game.

Nunez is healthy now, and the Gamecocks may try to get him the football.

“I consider (Nunez) as the backup quarterback with the opportunity to go in and be a starter at any given moment and also come in and change the pace of a football game if we want to go a different route,” Elliott said.

“We got him in there (at Texas A&M) with the reverse, which was the run-throw option. … (Nunez is) a great quarterback, and he can do a lot of things for us. Right now he’s coming off that injury, and I think Orth’s playing pretty well, but we’re going to do a lot of things with Nunez. He’s still got our interest.”

Dobbs vs. Gamecocks

Elliott hasn’t forgotten what Dobbs did to the Gamecocks during UT’s 45-42 overtime victory last year in Columbia.

Dobbs led the Vols’ rally from a 42-28 deficit with less than 5 minutes to play and finished with 301 passing yards and 166 rushing yards. He became the first UT player to have a 300-yard passing game and 100-yard rushing game the same day, and the third in SEC history to accomplish that feat (the others were Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel).

“They’ve got great backs and a great quarterback,” Elliott said. “They’ve got some really good speed skill guys on the edge at the wide receiver position. You know what they did to us a year ago.”

Dobbs is focused on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

“Last year was a big win, but last year doesn’t have an effect on this year,” he said. “It’s obviously great to come back home and play in Neyland in front of our fans.”

Dobbs didn’t play in 2013 against South Carolina, when the Vols upset the No. 11 Gamecocks 23-21 in Neyland Stadium in the seventh game of the season. Justin Worley was the Vols’ quarterback.

Dobbs played his first game as a true freshman the next week at Alabama, a 45-10 loss, when Worley was injured in the first half.

Abernathy’s Push to Start

UT true freshman Micah Abernathy is making a push for the starting nickel back job held by Malik Foreman, a junior from Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett.

Abernathy, a four-star cornerback/safety from Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Ga., split time at nickel with Foreman against Kentucky, and Jones said competition for the starter’s job would continue into the South Carolina game.

“Micah Abernathy is one of those freshmen that has continued to get better and better and better, and you can see it in his style of play,” Jones said. “You can really see it in his overall playing speed. It’s amazing.

“We always talk about not letting the mind tie the feet up, and he’s becoming more and more comfortable, he’s playing at much higher speed level and I’ve been really proud of him in his continued growth and development.”

Jones said Abernathy was partially responsible for Berry’s kickoff return for touchdown.

“He had two critical blocks on Evan Berry’s kickoff return where he had great judgement,” Jones said. “Micah’s a smart player and he had great judgment on who to block, and as the off returner, you have to rely on your instincts and your judgement because you don’t have a particular person to block, and you have to make full speed decision, and he made two full-speed decisions that really allowed Evan to get to the end zone.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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