If Tennessee football coach Butch Jones thought last Saturday night was bad in Columbia, South Carolina, he had no idea what was waiting when he got back to Knoxville.
Fans were still stewing over UT’s 24-21 loss to unranked South Carolina. It dropped the then-ranked No. 18 Vols (5-3, 2-3 SEC) out of the polls and probably out of contention for the East Division title and SEC Championship game.
Then came Jones’ weekly press conference Monday at noon when he confirmed junior running back Jalen Hurd, the prized recruit of his 2014 class and a Hendersonville Beech High School graduate, told him earlier in the morning he was transferring to become a wide receiver or tight end at another school.
Or did Hurd quit Saturday night?
Hurd didn’t play in the second half at South Carolina, and by Monday afternoon there was much speculation on message boards and talk radio that Hurd refused to play after halftime against South Carolina. And his “Vol For Life” teammates were furious.
Jimmy Hyams said during Monday’s “SportsTalk with John and Jimmy” show on Sports Radio WNML that sources told him Hurd announced to teammates after Sunday’s team meeting he was leaving the team but didn’t tell Jones until Monday morning.
Jones had some explaining to do at Monday’s presser, which was anything but a preview of Saturday’s game against Tennessee Tech (3-5, 3-3 Ohio Valley Conference) at Neyland Stadium (4 p.m.).
And Jones didn’t exactly win the press conference.
A TV female television reporter asked Jones what he would say to fans distressed about the South Carolina loss and those who might be questioning Jones’ leadership and future at Tennessee.
“I don’t listen to any of that,” Jones said. “Just a few weeks ago, everything was great, so we live in a week-to-week season, and that’s the job and the responsibility of the head football coach, and I take great pride in that, and that means nothing.”
Later, Jones called out the TV reporter in a long response about being able to get a pulse of his team. The reporter had left the press conference.
“We spend so much time with these young men and we know them extensively,” Jones pointed out. “Not only (do we know) them extensively, but their parents. It’s probably a great day for you all (media). You’ve got a lot to write about, but no, when they come here, it’s business as usual.
“I guess the thing that maybe is more concerning than anything is when there’s things out there that are totally false and untrue. I take this program personally. I’m the caretaker of the football program. People can put anything out there, and it gains legs when it’s the furthest thing from the truth, and that’s why I don’t really listen to anything.
“I don’t pay any attention, you know. Where’s our young lady (the TV reporter)? She asked her question and left. Why didn’t she stay here for the whole press conference, you know?
“I’ve been a head coach for a while. I understand. I get it. We’re all moving forward. This football team’s fine. This football program’s fine. I love our fan base. Everything is fine. We’re going to be just fine, so not really, we know our kids pretty extensively.”
There also was speculation junior defensive tackle Jonathan Kongbo had quit the team, too.
It was based on a post on Kongbo’s Twitter account Sunday afternoon reading: “All things must come to an end” above a photo of a pair cleats hanging on a wall.
Asked if Kongbo was still on the team, Jones said: “Yes. That’s why we don’t push the panic button. He lost in a FIFA game and those were soccer cleats that he tweeted out.”
You still have to wonder: Were Kongbo’s tweet and Hurd’s departure connected?
Hurd hasn’t been the same since he took a blindsided hit while almost crossing the goal line at Georgia, lost a fumble, and sat for most of the second half.
He didn’t play the next week at Texas A&M due to injury. Against Alabama, Hurd had 13 carries for 28 yards and caught three passes for minus-1 yard.
His production wasn’t getting better in the first half at South Carolina. He gained 16 yards on eight carries, and scored on a 1-yard run in the first quarter.
Now, it seems noteworthy Hurd didn’t get many kudos from teammates after his TD run at South Carolina. Hardly any.
Hurd won’t be eligible to play college football again until 2018 unless he goes to a program of a lower level than FBS.
Hurd, who was 468 yards shy of UT’s career rushing record held by Travis Henry, is the 12th player from the 32-member 2014 signing class no longer on the team.
Jones was asked how he would explain that high number, and the departure of such high-profile player like Hurd, who seemed destined for the NFL when the season started.
“I think all you need to do is look at an individual like Derek Barnett (UT defensive end),” Jones said. “We’re constantly evolving our recruiting profile and competitive individuals and individuals like that, but every individual has a different circumstance, has a different reason for doing what they’re doing, and that’s the last question I’m going to answer on Jalen.
“I wish him well and hope that he finds everything that he’s looking for.”
It wasn’t the last question Jones got about Hurd, though.
Jones was asked why the Vols hadn’t lined Hurd up deep in the backfield like they did in the Outback Bowl and in the season opener.
“I said we’re not answering any more (about Hurd), right,” Jones retorted. “Did I not say that? Next question please.”
Hurd’s absence in the second half at South Carolina was glaring. UT already was without injured tailback Alvin Kamara, so without Hurd, the Vols had sophomore John Kelly and true freshman Carlin Fils-Aime available.
With the Vols trailing 17-14 in the fourth quarter, Kelly broke a 34-yard run to UT’s 45-yard line and went to the bench for a breather. On the next play, Fils-Aime ran into quarterback Joshua Dobbs in the backfield and caused a fumble that was recovered by South Carolina at the 50.
So Jones got yet another question about Hurd. Was Hurd hurt, did he refuse to go back in the game, or was it a coaching decision not to play him in the second half.
“He was injured,” Jones explained. “John had a big run and played an extensive number of plays in that drive, and that’s why (Fils-Aime) was in there.”
Again, you have to wonder.
Five things moving forward
Dobbs is the man
Dobbs had a bad game against South Carolina, but Jones said the senior is the Vols’ quarterback for the final four games against Tennessee Tech, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
Dobbs completed 12 of 26 passes for 161 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions against the Gamecocks. Several of his incomplete passes bounced in front of receivers or sailed over them. The fumble in the fourth quarter wasn’t necessarily his fault.
South Carolina’s pressure got to Dobbs, who was sacked twice and took several hard hits on runs (55 yards, 12 carries).
Dobbs’ quarterback rating (129.7) is eighth among SEC QBs starting at least half their games. He’s completing 57.1 percent of his passes with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. With 321 net rushing yards, Dobbs is the second-leading rusher behind Hurd (451 yards, three touchdowns).
Jones says he won’t bench Dobbs for sophomore Quinten Dormady or freshman Sheriron Jones.
“Josh Dobbs is our quarterback,” Jones said. “Make no mistake about that. It’s a long football season with a lot of football left to be played.
“Somebody told me this, and I think this puts things in perspective, so when we talk about the negativity out there: When we gain our next victory, it’ll be three straight years that we’ve become bowl eligible, and that’s the first time since 2002.
“So, again, everyone wants to point towards negativity and chaos and the sky is falling, but if my math serves me, that’s over 10 years.”
Kamara back for Kentucky
Jones said Kamara could return for the Nov. 12 game against Kentucky at Neyland Stadium, but won’t play against Tennessee Tech.
Kelly will be the No. 1 back, and look for Fils-Aime to get plenty of carries.
Kelly rushed for a career-high 94 yards on 14 carries against South Carolina and is the Vols’ fourth leading rusher (209 yards). He’s averaging the team-high 6.3 yards per carry.
Hurd’s departure means more carries for Kelly.
“Obviously (Kelly) will gain a greater role in our offense, and he’s an individual who’s earned this opportunity,” Jones added.
“You talk about dynamics of leadership. He’s one of the leaders on this football team, and his energy, his passion, he was one of the most vocal players we had last night (Sunday) in my individual meetings with some guys. You talk about asserting your will on a football team. He’s very, very passionate.”
Tennessee’s starting offensive line against South Carolina had Brett Kendrick at left tackle, Jashon Robertson at left guard, Dylan Wiesman at center, Jack Jones at right guard and Chance Hall at right tackle.
Redshirt freshman Vincent Boulware got the start against Alabama for Robertson, who started the first six games.
Tennessee averaged 3.7 yards on 37 carries against the Gamecocks. The Vols are ninth in the SEC in rushing yards per game (165.4) and have given up 19 sacks for minus-175 yards.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Jones said of his offensive line. “Again, it’s finding the right five that are going to play winning football. We had some individuals I thought played winning football, and we had some individuals who have to make tremendous strides moving forward for us to play as a cohesive unit. They are getting better and I believe in them, just like our team does.”
The Vols’ defensive line took another hit when sophomore Shy Tuttle suffered a season-ending knee injury against South Carolina.
Tennessee lost senior tackle Danny O’Brien after the Texas A&M game when he was dismissed from the team. His replacement for Alabama, sophomore Kahlil McKenzie, tore a pectoral muscle against the Tide and will miss the rest of the season.
Tuttle sustained a broken fibula last year against Georgia.
“I really, really feel for (Tuttle),” Jones said. “He worked so hard to get himself back in playing condition and worked so hard and so diligently in the training room.”
Chemistry down the stretch
During Monday’s press conference, Jones was asked if team chemistry could improve for the last four games.
If the question was about Hurd’s departure, Jones didn’t bite.
Jones said the loss to South Carolina will build chemistry.
“I do. I think sometimes it’s very, very unfortunate, that sometimes it may take a moment like that, an opportunity we let slip away Saturday night to get everyone’s full attention, and for individuals to speak up,” Jones said. “When a lot of the players are calling me after the team meeting and saying, ‘Coach, that’s what we needed,’ and I feel so much better about everything.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘I wish we’d had that meeting the previous week before that game.’ But you know what? It wouldn’t have had probably the magnitude or the effect that that meeting had. It’s more than just meeting. We have to get back to playing our style of play.
“I think we lost our way. We lost our edge. We hang ourselves on great effort. We hang ourselves on great energy, and I’d be sitting up here and misleading you if I said we played with great effort and great energy for 60 minutes. We did not.
“I give South Carolina a lot of credit. They out-executed us. They outplayed us. They outcoached us. They did it all, and they wanted to win that football game, and sometimes it maybe takes a moment like that.”
Dave Link is a freelance contributor living in Knoxville.