ATLANTA — Tennessee has invested a lot of time into the opening game against Georgia Tech — far more than the 1/12 portion of the regular season schedule that it represents.
Coach Butch Jones understands momentum, and he knows better than anyone what a victory against the Yellow Jackets in tonight’s 8 p.m. (TV: ESPN) showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium would represent.
The Vols had minimal offseason off-field issues, but adversity struck this fall at offensive tackle and linebacker.
Tennessee left tackle Drew Richmond made some bad off-field decisions and got himself suspended for the opening game by breaking team rules. At the start of fall camp, junior right tackle Chance Hall underwent season-ending knee surgery.
The linebacker position was cloudy entering fall camp and grew worse when Darrin Kirkland Jr. suffered a torn meniscus that required season-ending knee surgery, and then Austin Smith injured his knee last Friday and is expected to miss at least four weeks.
So why was Jones still walking around the team’s downtown Atlanta hotel smiling and confident on Sunday night?
The Vols were prepared to play seven or eight linebackers before Kirkland’s injury, and Jones said from the beginning of fall camp that competitive depth was the priority.
There are no guarantees the backup offensive tackle (Marcus Tatum) or backup linebackers (Evan Berry, Dillon Bates) will be ready for their opportunities, but they’ve been prepped.
Here are the five keys to tonight’s football game between Tennessee and Georgia Tech.
5 keys for Tennessee football vs. Georgia Tech
1. Quarterback play
The Vols quarterbacks don’t have to win the game for their team — they just can’t lose it.
That means good decision making by Tennessee’s Quinten Dormady/Jarrett Guarantano, along with execution (clean snaps, accurate passes) and effective game management (no delay of games, proper protections/checks/audibles).
2. Vols defensive tackles
Now, more than ever, Tennessee needs Reginald McKenzie Jr. to live up to his 5-star billing. No player on defense has more pressure on him tonight in Atlanta than McKenzie, who has flashed brilliance at times, but has yet to win the highest praise of the coaching staff and teammates. This could be his breakthrough moment.
Senior Kendal Vickers has been appointed a game week captain, a reward for his tremendous offseason and his history of soldiering through bumps and bruises while producing the most consistent results. Shy Tuttle isn’t expected to play, so if Alexis Johnson or Quay Picou could provide a lift that would be a bonus.
Keep an eye out for true freshman Matthew Butler, who arrived at Tennessee with a championship mindset and a work ethic to match.
3. Running back John Kelly
Yes, No. 4 is only one player, but he’s the toughest player on the team and he’ll likely touch the ball more than any other skill position player on Monday night.
Kelly was recruited to play safety by Michigan State and Michigan, because he hit so hard at Oak Park High School.
Instead, be chose to be a tailback at Tennessee, and tonight will be an indication if he chose the right position — is John Kelly an NFL talent at running back?
4. Defensive coaching staff
The Magic Show. The Brady. Mr. Intensity. The Tennessee defensive coaching staff has years upon years of experience agains the triple option, but do they have the knack to teach how to defend it? More importantly, do they have the players that can execute their game plan?
Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop wisely prepared several layers of defense to face Georgia Tech, and now it’s time to cash in after Kirkland Jr. and Smith were lost to injury for this game.
If the scheme is sound, and the players are motivated, Tennessee should have the talent to get it done on defense Monday night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
5. Special teams
Opening games always reveal how much a team has — or hasn’t — invested into its special teams preparation.
This is one area Jones has always shined, and Tennessee has one of the most elite kick returners in the nation in Evan Berry.
Sophomore punt returner Marquez Callaway, however, is unproven. Callaway will be under the microscope and needs to avoid fumbling away a punt.
Punter Trevor Daniel is one of the nation’s best, and while there’s competition at kicker, it’s a good kind of competition.