KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The pregame coin toss each week has provided insight into the injury problems that have hampered Tennessee all season.
Tennessee typically likes to send captains Joshua Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cam Sutton to midfield for the coin toss. But injuries sometimes left Dobbs as the only healthy captain who’s in full uniform for each game.
That finally changed Saturday when Sutton returned from a fractured ankle that had sidelined him for six games and Kamara came back from a knee injury that caused him to miss two games. Both could play major roles down the stretch as Tennessee chases its first Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title since 2007.
“When you’re able to have those two individuals back on the field, in terms of productivity, it was big for us,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said.
Both players had big performances Saturday in a 49-36 victory over Kentucky.
Kamara rushed for 128 yards on just 12 carries, including touchdown runs of 17 and 29 yards. He did all that while wearing a brace on the left knee that had bothered him enough to cause him to miss games against South Carolina and Tennessee Tech .
Sutton broke up two passes and increased his career total of passes defended to 36. That broke the school record of 35 formerly held by Jabari Greer, who played at Tennessee from 2000-03.
“It’s just a tribute to those individuals,” Jones said after the game. “First of all, these individuals could have easily sat out and said ‘I’m done’ and started getting ready for the NFL, but instead, they wanted to be a part of this football team and help us win. To me, that speaks volumes about their character and what this football program means to them.”
Kamara said he always planned on returning this season as long as he was physically able.
“We’ve got unfinished business. … The season’s not over,” Kamara said. “I made it my goal, if I can come back, I was going to come back. Here I am.”
Sutton’s return was critical for a team that has played much of the season without either of its defensive captains. Reeves-Maybin, a senior linebacker, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery last month after appearing in only four games.
His return also came a little ahead of schedule. Jones said after the Kentucky game that the staff had tentatively set this week’s Missouri game as a potential target date for Sutton.
“I’m not surprised with anything Cam Sutton does, to be honest with you,” defensive backs coach Willie Martinez said. “He’s so consistent day in and day out.”
Sutton’s presence will be particularly important Saturday against Missouri’s pass-oriented offense. Missouri (3-7, 1-5) averages 295.7 yards passing per game to rank second in the SEC. Jones says he considers Missouri’s Drew Lock a future NFL quarterback and adds that the Tigers have “probably as talented a group of wide receivers that we’ve faced the entire year.”
Depending on how the LSU-Florida game turns out earlier Saturday, the Missouri-Tennessee game could be critical to the Vols’ SEC East hopes.
To reach the SEC championship game, Tennessee (7-3, 3-3 SEC) must win its final two regular-season games and No. 21Florida (7-2, 5-2) must lose at LSU (6-3, 4-2) on Saturday. The Florida-LSU game figures to end sometime during the first half of the Tennessee-Missouri matchup, and Jones wants to make sure his team isn’t caught scoreboard watching.
“We don’t ever look up at the scoreboard,” Jones said. “That’s kind of our mindset. You just keep your head down and keep playing. We have to worry about the things we can control.”
NOTES: Jones said safety Todd Kelly Jr. and center/guard Drew Wiesman are both day to day after getting hurt during the Kentucky game. Jones said Wiesman is a little ahead of Kelly. Jones also said offensive tackle Chance Hall is expected to practice Monday but that the sophomore’s status for the Missouri game remains day to day.
Follow Steve Megargee at www.twitter.com/stevemegargee