KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee head coach Butch Jones spent Thursday night last week attending the Christian Academy of Knoxville football game featuring one of his 2016 commitments.
He wound up using most of his visit talking to one of his current players, who pledged to him that the Volunteers would win against Georgia two days later.
That was wide receiver Josh Smith, the former CAK standout who made the second in a series of three game-saving plays with a 39-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the second quarter that sparked the Vols' come-from-behind 38-31 win against the Bulldogs.
"It was kind of weird that he was over there, because I was thinking about him at the time," Smith recalled Saturday. "I walked over there and we talked for a solid hour, and it had nothing to do with football. (It did) a little bit, don't get me wrong, but it was just talking like just getting to know you (on) a personal level.
"What's funny is right as we're leaving, I shook his hand and I said, 'I promise you we're going to get this win.' He said, 'I've got your back.' Y'all don't understand what Coach Jones does behind the scenes, but I love him and we're behind him 24-7."
About 48 hours later, the Vols delivered the big win their program and coach needed.
Jones also recalled his conversation with Smith, a redshirt sophomore who was part of the coach's first signing class after he originally committed to the previous coaching staff.
"It was one of the most rewarding times I've had, just standing there and talking to him," Jones said. "We talked about our team and how hard we've worked. He kept saying, 'It's coming, Coach. It's coming, Coach.'"
It wouldn't have come if Smith didn't make his big play.
After converting a fourth-and-4 when Von Pearson made an impressive catch as he slipped to the ground, Tennessee faced a fourth-and-8 trailing 24-3.
Quarterback Josh Dobbs zipped a pass that somehow wasn't deflected by either of two Georgia defenders, and Smith had to leap and twist his body to snag the ball thrown slightly behind him. He then found a seam and raced into the end zone.
Tennessee created a turnover on the ensuing kickoff and scored off that to go into halftime down just seven points.
"The great catch by Josh Smith and run for a touchdown really changed the game," Dobbs said. "That really gave us confidence — not confidence, but it really gave us a jolt of energy. Then to have the fumble and go down and score right before the half, that was huge as well."
Said Jones: "That really created some momentum for us."
Jones today is expected to give a detailed update on the health of multiple players, including Shy Tuttle.
The freshman defensive tackle was progressing nicely and seeing his playing time increase, but he left Saturday's win in the fourth quarter with a ankle injury after Georgia center Brandon Kublanow dived at the back of his left leg as he chased a running play that went toward the sideline.
The 6-foot-2, 311-pounder put no weight on his leg as he was helped to the sideline and left the stadium on crutches.
Tuttle likely will be out for an extended period of time.
Freshman defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie made his presence felt in Saturday's game, particularly in the second half.
After playing just 10 snaps in the first half, the 6-3, 344-pounder was in for 21 plays after halftime, and Georgia gained only 27 yards on 13 running plays when McKenzie was in the game. He made four tackles against the Bulldogs a week after making five stops against Arkansas.
Third the charm
After allowing 444 yards of offense and 7.2 yards per play against Georgia, Tennessee is 13th in the SEC and 92nd nationally in total defense (419 yapg). The Vols have allowed 30 plays of 20-plus yards and 17 plays of 30 or more yards. They are 10th in the SEC against the run and 13th against the pass.
They continue to be effective on third down, however, after allowing Georgia to convert just 4 of 14 opportunities on Saturday. Two of those conversions came on the final drive, when the Bulldogs faced a Tennessee defense content with keeping everything in front of it. Nine times Georgia faced a third down of 7 yards to go or longer.
Tennessee is third in the SEC in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 29 percent of the time.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.