The Tennessee Vols will be missing a few players when they kick off the season on Monday night against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
Fans of the Tennessee Vols heard all the excuses last season after brutal losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Injuries and missing players. Those were the reasons given for the two losses that kept Tennessee from winning the SEC East, and going to Atlanta in December for the first time since the 2007 season.
They don’t want to hear those same excuses after the first game of the 2017 season.
Fortunately for Vol fans, I don’t think there will be a need for excuses after Monday night. Because I don’t think a few missing players will affect the outcome of the Vols’ game against Georgia Tech.
We know for sure that Tennessee will be without starting middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr (out for the year with a knee injury) and starting left tackle Drew Richmond (suspension). They could also reportedly be without starting strongside linebacker Austin Smith, though that hasn’t been confirmed.
The Vols have plenty of experienced players to step up and take the place of the missing players. And that’s the way it should be. Butch Jones has been building Tennessee’s football program for over four years. Depth, and a quality roster, isn’t an issue anymore. Every program in the country deals with these same issues. The Vols are no different than any other team.
As far as the game on Monday night goes, I think Tennessee will be just fine. Brett Kendrick, a redshirt senior, will slide over to left tackle. Kendrick has 20 starts in his career and they’ve all come at either right tackle or left tackle. Clearly the staff thinks Richmond is a better option at left tackle, but Kendrick is more than serviceable with his experience.
We all know that Colton Jumper will take Kirland’s spot in the middle. Jumper has the stigma of being a former walk-on attached to him, but he also has plenty of experience. He’s obviously a hard worker, and I’m willing to bet that he’s a better player in 2017 than the was in 2016. Given Kirkland’s injury history, it’s not like it’s a huge surprise he’s missing time. Jumper and the Tennessee staff were likely prepared for this scenario.
Austin Smith’s injury is where things could get a little tricky. Smith’s injury hasn’t been confirmed, but it’s sounding like it’s very likely he will miss Monday night’s game. Smith was slotted to start at strongside linebacker for the Volunteers. Typically, the Vols eschew a third linebacker in favor of a fifth defensive back. The 4-2-5 defensive alignment is Tennessee’s “base defense”. But because of the challenges that Georgia Tech presents, they’re expected to go with a more traditional 4-3 defensive front. With Smith out, it looks like redshirt junior Dillon Bates or senior Elliot Berry could play in Smith’s absence.
There’s a bit more of a dropoff from Smith to his backups, but those guys are still prepared to play. I don’t think losing Smith will cost Tennessee this game.
If the Vols don’t win on Monday night, it’ll be because they were outplayed and outcoached. Not because they were missing three players.