By: Eric Cain / @_Cainer
Tennessee looks to bounce back Saturday night inside Neyland Stadium against the Cougars of Brigham Young University. After a shocking loss to Georgia State in week one, the Volunteers need to pick up the victory this weekend or they could be staring 1-6 in the face to begin the season.
But it’s not going to be easy.
BYU played well defensively against No. 14 Utah last Thursday. If not for two pick-sixes thrown by dual-threat quarterback Zach Wilson, the Cougars are right in that ballgame late in the second half. Defensively, the front seven is an odd front – but multiple- and moves around constantly. Plus, BYU may just be more talented than the Volunteers right now – even if Tennessee improves from week one.
So, what needs to happen for the Volunteers to come out a winner in front of the home crowd and pull out this seemingly ‘must-win’ game in week two? Here’s five things that must improve to do just that.
- Get a Push Up Front
Yes, the offensive line needs to play better, but I’m talking defense right now. Dan Ellington was hardly pressured by the interior line on Saturday. He was hit a few times in the contest but most notably those pressures/knockdowns came from the outside with Shawn Shamburger and Jeremy Banks coming to mind.
Aubrey Solomon, who was ruled eligible by the NCAA 72 hours prior to kickoff, was a nonfactor. Greg Emerson and junior college transfer Darel Middleton were much the same in the starting bunch. LaTrell Bumphus, who stood out in camp as a pass rusher, never found his form. Transfer Savion Willimams did not as well. And incumbent reserves John Mincey and Matthew Butler saw limited snaps.
Kurott Garland, who missed most of camp with his name in the transfer portal, played most of the game. Jeremy Pruitt said Wednesday in his weekly press conference that Garland was one of the team’s ‘better players’ right now.
Regardless of who is in there and what first-year defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley dials up for pressure on the outside, the interior defensive line must play better and not be pushed around all day. BYU will be a challenge as all five starting offensive linemen are at least 22 years of age across the board.
- Settle on 5-6 Offensive Linemen
Jeremy Pruitt is making $3.8 million dollars this year as head coach of the Volunteers. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is making over a million. These guys know football – a lot more than I do. I’m not even going to pretend I know more.
But football 101 states the offensive line, along with the quarterback, is the ONLY unit on the football field where a rotation is not ideal. You need to build chemistry, consistency – a cohesive mindset, if you will – with five guys throughout a game (much less a season). Rotating nine offensive linemen in and out throughout the course of a ballgame (like UT did against Georgia State) negates that mindset.
I understand UT doesn’t have the luxury or confidence right now to stick with just five guys. Offensive line coach Will Friend said no one has “stood out” or said “this is my spot” back in camp in August. But the time is now. You’ve got to get it in gear and stick with the same guys.
Trey Smith (blot clots) returned to action last week and played 30 snaps, according to Pruitt. The junior is obviously the team’s best offensive lineman when out there, albeit due to his medical plan, the former No. 1 overall recruit in the nation will be a week-to-week situation with potentially a snap-count in ballgames. Smith will be that sixth offensive lineman for now.
Pruitt and Friend want five-star tackles Wanya Morris (who started at LT) and Darnell Wright in the mix as much as possible. Center Brandon Kennedy played every offensive snap. Pruitt was quoted in saying veteran Jahmir Johnson, Kennedy and Wright played the best in week one. But Ryan Johnson, Riley Locklear and Marcus Tatum continue to get most snaps.
A lot of that has to do with experience. Regardless of the reason, the coaching staff needs to find five (and Smith) and stick with those guys. I broadcast a high school football game every week and not one time do I see an East Tennessee program rotate offensive linemen in and out of a ballgame like the university did last week and some in 2018.
- Get Lined Up
Tennessee’s biggest question mark coming into the season was the defensive line and Saturday, fans saw why. Inexperience and an overall lack of football knowledge was apparent. Those things, however, are correctable. But, how?
Well, for starters, the addition of Daniel BItuli at linebacker will help. Pruitt said Wednesday that the Volunteers’ leading tackler is ‘close’ to returning and could see some game action on Saturday. Having that veteran presence, a guy who has played a lot of football over the years and a guy who is two years into the current defensive system will go a long way.
Things won’t be perfect even if Bituli plays Saturday. It’s football. Guys line up wrong often. You must overcome it. But Tennessee misaligned numerous times against the Panthers and got burned. The emergence of freshman Henry To’o To’o will also help the more he plays. He’s already making plays on the field, but his knowledge of the overall defense will continue to grow as the season progresses.
Bottom line, however, is the inexperienced defensive line group must grow up in a hurry. Too many times the Vols were beat before the snap of the football simply because of misalignment. And when you have a versatile quarterback like Dan Ellington out of shotgun, things can happen. BYU’s Zach Wilson won’t be any different.
When you’re an underdog, which Tennessee will be most of the season, you can’t beat yourself. UT did that all game last Saturday.
#Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt has preached the struggle of just lining up on defense throughout camp and again last night in postgame.
This was 3rd & 10 that Ellington scrambled left to pickup first down. pic.twitter.com/VcmDIL4KAX
— Eric Cain (@_Cainer) September 1, 2019
- Running Backs Must Block
Not much to say here. It’s self-explanatory. To play running back at a high level, you must hold on to the football and be efficient in your pass protection.
Tennessee has struggled with this the past few seasons – really dating back to when Jalen Hurd left the program. Many times a season ago, former offensive coordinator Tyson Helton would call 6-to-7 man protections to help aid in the poor offensive line play. But even with tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson and running backs Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan staying into apply assistance, Jarrett Guarantano still got hit.
On Saturday, both Chandler and freshman Eric Gray had their fair share of blocking woes. Whether it be a whiff, being bulldozed or just not recognizing a blitz, Guarantano took the hits a few times on their account.
Chandler, who was benched in the second half following two fumbles, has struggled in blocking throughout his career. Gray should get better as time goes on but could be a liability on third downs due to the poor skill. With Jordan questionable with a ‘turned ankle,’ the Vols don’t have much to turn to.
Freshman athlete Aaron Beasley has moved to running back this week, but it’d be hard pressed for me to believe he would be up to speed to play in a game at the position. Jeremy Banks is playing inside linebacker right now but could still be an option in the backfield at worst-case scenario.
- Guarantano Must Play Better
Let me be very clear: JG is not the reason Tennessee lost Saturday. However, he didn’t really help the Vols chances in the second half.
Tennessee’s fourth-year signal-caller threw for over 300 yards for the second time in his career against the Panthers. Over 60 yards of that came on UT’s final drive that resulted in a Jauan Jennings touchdown. Too many self-inflicting errors that we’ve seen before from No. 2 were made throughout the 60 minutes of play.
The errors were failing to recognize blitzes, changing protections and even throwing too hard of a football. It is believed that JG had the ability to change such at the line of scrimmage, so why didn’t he? The opening drive ‘fumble’ from Chandler was a result of a bullet thrown behind the line of scrimmage to the running back from JG who was maybe seven yards away.
Josh Palmer’s would-be touchdown right before the half, that scraped the top of his fingertips in the back of the end zone, would have been a tough catch to make – but it was a catchable pass. Guarantano threw it to only where his receiver could get it. He was also alluding a rush outside the pocket while the defensive back was closing the gap towards Palmer.
But still, the routine errors must improve. JG can’t miss open receivers or be slow to them on their routes. He is capable and certainly the best man for the job – but he must improve on Saturday for UT to be victorious.
Tennessee had a lot go wrong Saturday, but the season is not over. Things can improve and progress can be made. But the Vols need it to start against BYU or the season could go downhill in a hurry.
Can this all be fixed on Saturday? No, but by making progress in these areas, I believe the Vols will be on their way and potentially beat a team like BYU at home.