Our Friday opponent Q&A's are becoming one of my favorite features of the week. As the Sooners and Volunteers prepare to tangle for the very first time in the regular season we reached out to our SBN buddies at Rocky Top Talk to give us the lowdown on Tennessee football.
CCM: Two games into his second season, where can you see the most improvement under Butch Jones?
RTT: The most visible improvement is the increased speed and athleticism on the roster. Formeur Tennessee head Derek Dooley had some recruiting successes, but near the end of his tenure he had a number of failures in recruiting and evaluation, including an inexplicable decision not to recruit a single offensive lineman in 2012. Jones was said to be shocked at the overall lack of team speed upon his arrival, especially in the defensive backfield, and it also didn't help that a trio of talented juniors (QB Tyler Bray and WRs Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson) left early for the NFL rather than play under a new head coach.
So far, Jones' recruiting has been exactly what the Vols have needed. Through two games, Tennessee has played more than twenty true freshmen, including starters at tight end, right guard, and defensive end. They're painfully young and inexperienced, but at least now the Vols have players who look the part.
CCM: How does the loss of WR Von Pearson (and possibly TE Ethan Wolf) affect the Vols offensive game plan?
Wide receiver is the deepest unit on the Tennessee offense, but Pearson brings elite change of direction and acceleration to the position that's hard to replicate. Since there's no one else quite like him on the roster (he's both bigger and faster than the Vols' elusive slot receiver Pig Howard), I don't expect offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian to try. Tennessee will start sophomore Josh Smith across from Marquez North, but I'd expect to see several other wide receivers shuffled in-and-out as the coaching staff tries to exploit different matchup advantages. Smith has good hands and top-end speed, but is more a long strider who takes time to get up to top speed. True freshman Josh Malone (one of the top WR recruits in the country) will probably also get a crack at running deep routes, and huge-bodied sophomore Jason Croom (6'5, 240) will see looks in the red zone.
All in all, I'd look for a more vertical offense without Pearson, with more use of the running backs against underneath coverage.
Wolf is expected to play.
CCM: Oklahoma's defensive line is big, fast, and long. Tell us what to expect for their counterparts on the Tennessee offensive line.
RTT: Philosophically, Jones and his offensive line coach Mahoney are looking for lighter, quicker linemen capable of excelling at zone blocking concepts rather than the sheer size of their counterparts along the Oklahoma offensive line. With the season-ending injury to starting left tackle Jacob Gilliam (and a sub-par performance by his replacement, redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick), the Vols completely reshuffled the starting lineup during practice this week. Tennessee moved jack-of-all-trades RS junior Kyler Kerbyson from right tackle (where he started the last two games after working at RG during the spring) to left tackle, with true freshman Coleman Thomas coming in at right tackle. The interior of the line, left guard Marcus Jackson, RS sophomore Mack Crowder, and true freshman Jashon Robertson, remains the same. This lineup puts the best combination of talent and experience on the field, but starting two true freshmen (and a guard miscast as a tackle) against a veteran defensive line is never a good thing.
Conceptually, I'd expect the offense to double on the interior while leaving an outside rusher either unblocked (for QB read options/roll outs) or to a running back. Oklahoma's nose tackle will be priority number one and face double-teams all game as Crowder hasn't handled zero-technique lineman very well by himself. Tennessee will try to use quick passes, backfield movement, and QB rollouts to slow the pass rush and minimize the length of time the line has to hold blocks, but interior pressure could kill that plan pretty quickly. The Vols also haven't shown a split back or pistol formation, so that's also a possibility.
CCM: Vols quarterback Justin Worley seems to be the catalyst to the Tennessee offense early this season but what about the rushing attack. What can Oklahoma fans expect to see on the ground.
RTT: Tennessee operates primarily from the shotgun, so I wouldn't expect to see much of a traditional I-formation power run game unless Bajakian has been sand-bagging us. Senior starter Marlin Lane and true freshman Jalen Hurd both have good hands and speed to burn, so the Vols will use the speed option, screens, and short passes to try and get them the ball in space.
CCM: Give us your perceived game plan for Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight. What do you expect to see the Tennessee defense to in order to limit him?
RTT: The game plan for Knight will depend on how dominant the Oklahoma offensive line is in establishing the run game. Even though the Tennessee defensive front is small, I'd expect them to be keyed up for the power run game after hearing about the Oklahoma offensive line all week, so I'd expect the Sooners to start out with plays that incorporate misdirection. Linebackers AJ Johnson and Curt Maggitt are the heart and soul of the Tennessee defense, but neither player is at his best moving horizontally in space. Oklahoma will want to repeatedly test the edges of the Vols' defense to see whether or not young and inexperienced players can remain disciplined and cover assignments despite a wide range of motion and fakes in the play design.
Heupel will probably move Sterling Shepard around the formation to try and create mismatches, because otherwise, Shepard is likely to draw Tennessee's best corner, freshman All-American Cam Sutton. Sutton has the length and speed to essentially erase him from the game, so I'd expect Shepard to move around so he can exploit a slower linebacker or corner instead. Nickel back Justin Coleman is the weak link in the Vols' secondary, and quicker players like Shepard have given him fits in the past.
If the Sooners use packaged run/pass plays, they'll put Tennessee in a bind: Coleman is a sure tackler, but mediocre at best in coverage, and there aren't a lot of good options behind him. The Vols have talent, so Knight will need to be patient, exploit his mismatches, and not get greedy.
CCM: Prediction time. Tell us how you see things shaking out in Norman on Saturday night.
RTT: Tennessee is going to be a lot better than most people expect, but it won't be enough on the road against a talented, veteran, and well-coached team. The Vols will hang tough for two or three quarters, but unless Bad Trevor Knight appears and turns the ball over a couple of times, I'm expecting a 10 point Sooners' victory.