Tennessee's October schedule looked challenging enough before the season started. Now that the Volunteers are facing the rest of it without key players on both sides of the ball, it's downright scary.
“What do you do?” coach Derek Dooley said Monday. “Nobody's going to feel sorry for Tennessee and they're not going to feel sorry for me, and that's OK. But I'm not going to go in the tank because we've had some things that happened to us that make it a lot more challenging. We've just got to find solutions. That's what we're going to do go out there and compete, compete like men, and that's what we should do.”
The Vols (3-2, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) are preparing for a visit by No. 1 LSU (6-0, 3-0) this week and a trip to No. 2 Alabama next week without starting quarterback Tyler Bray, who broke the thumb on his throwing hand in a 20-12 loss to Georgia on Saturday.
It's the second time in a month Tennessee is faced with retooling the offense. The Vols lost top wide receiver Justin Hunter for the season when he tore his ACL on Sept. 17 against Florida. They've also gone all season without veteran linebacker Herman Lathers, who continues to recover from an offseason ankle injury and star safety Janzen Jackson, whom Dooley kicked off the team a week before the season started.
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But that's why you have backups, offensive guard Alex Bullard said.
“They're all great players, but that's why you have two-deep depth chart, three-deep depth chart,” he said. “I'm not going to say it's not going to hurt with them being out, but we have confidence in the players that are backing them up.”
That starts with Matt Simms, who will fill in for the quarterback who snagged his starting job nearly a year ago. Simms, a senior from Franklin Lakes, N.J., has held on to the confidence of his teammates by continuing to be a leader even in a backup role.
He also reminded everyone of why he started eight games last season when he entered the Georgia game in relief of Bray in the fourth quarter. Simms threw two straight long passes across the middle to set up his own 1-yard scoring run, the Vols' only touchdown of the game. The first pass was an 11-yard toss to and the second, a 19-yard throw, converted a fourth-and-16 situation.
Simms nearly led Tennessee to an upset over the then 12th-ranked Tigers at Baton Rouge last season. Tennessee appeared to have won until a Vols penalty for too many men on the field on defense cleared the way for a game-winning touchdown by LSU on the last play of the game.
“Last year at LSU, he led us down there and we beat up on them pretty bad right until the last of the game,” Bullard said. “We have confidence in him. We can definitely win with Matt. We can beat LSU with Matt playing quarterback. It's just all about 11 guys executing on both sides of the ball and doing what we have to do against these guys.”
LSU coach Les Miles certainly hasn't forgotten Simms, and he doesn't expect Tennessee to be much different without him.
“They're going to do the things that they do best,” Miles said. “I think Simms runs the offense in a very similar way that Bray would. I just don't think that he'll have the most recent experience, but he's very experienced and he'll step in and do a very, very quality job, I'm sure.”
Simms will need some help from the players around him. The Vols passing game has been consistent and averages 327.2 yards, but the running game averages an SEC-worst 84.8 yards per game.
Fifteen of Tennessee's 34 rushing attempts against Florida and Georgia either lost yardage or stopped at the line of scrimmage. The Vols' ground game struggled all day against the Bulldogs but only got worse when senior running back Tauren Poole left the game late in the first half with a strained hamstring. Dooley said Poole is day-to-day this week.
“I told the team it's going to be doom and gloom around here – let's just call it like it is – because of what's happened,” Dooley said. “We've had some tough luck, and it will be doom and gloom if we don't correct some of the things that affect how we're playing. If we put our head down or we don't go out there and play the best we can play, it will be doom and gloom. We're going to get annihilated. But if we go out there and compete like we're capable of and not lose composure, then we'll see what happens.”