Thanks to Terry Lambert with Rocky Top Talk for taking the time to talk about the Vols to us. I know I do my best to avoid anything orange, so getting some insider previews is pretty helpful.
1) After some much publicized failures early in the season, Tennessee turned around and defeated the Mississippi State Bulldogs last weekend. Though the Bulldogs aren’t quite the team they were before Dan Mullen left, they’re still a formidable SEC west opponent that few gave the Volunteers a chance to beat. How big was that win for your fanbase? And do you think Tennessee can build on that success?
Whew — Tennessee needed it. Especially with Alabama up next. It’s pretty clear that Jeremy Pruitt is safe, but he needed to show a pulse to keep up the work on the recruiting side. That’s the only way Tennessee comes out of this tailspin. They showed a little something against Georgia before the talent eventually took over, so I think they’ve already started building on something. The big deal for Tennessee was totally shutting down a pretty good Mississippi State rushing attack and limiting Kylin Hill to virtually nothing on the ground. The front seven really stepped up, even adding seven sacks. It was the first time we saw actual growth on the field and it translated to a win. That’s really good news.
2) What can you tell us about this Brian Maurer guy? From the rumblings I’ve heard, he sounds like an explosive freshman set to unseat Jarrett Guarantano. But a quick look at the stats (46% completion percentage, 2 TD to 4 INT) tell a different story.
The short answer is that his numbers don’t match how well he’s played. The offense had grown so stale with Guarantano running the show. Maurer came in and was an instant shot of juice. He came off of the bench in Gainesville at halftime, leading the only scoring drive of the day. He started against Georgia and threw two first half touchdown passes, giving Tennessee a 14-13 lead midway through the second quarter. He’s aggressive and confident, which works both ways. He’s a freshman coming out of a spread offense in high school, so he’s kind of learning on the fly.
Against Mississippi State, Maurer really moved the ball well both through the air and on the ground. But he made two horrible decisions in the redzone, tossing two picks in the back of the endzone. Without those turnovers, Tennessee wins that game by two or three touchdowns. So it’s kind of taking the explosive plays with the mistakes right now, which has been an upgrade over Guarantano, who oddly regressed this year.
3) Ty Chandler looks to be the go-to guy at running back. What can you tell us about his style of play and ability? And are there any back-ups at running back that we should keep an eye on?
Chandler has been impressive this year. He’s a guy that was known as a homerun hitter and has 4.3 speed, but wasn’t very big. He still isn’t all that big, but he’s running tougher this year. He’s got a bit of an attitude about him, which has been fun to see develop. Tennessee will split carries between he and Tim Jordan, who just came back from an ankle injury. Jordan isn’t as explosive, but he’s more physical. Freshman Eric Gray is one to watch too. He’s made some plays already this year and has ridiculous agility. There’s a name to file away for down the road.
4) Who is Tennessee’s best pass catcher?
Jauan Jennings. Yes, he’s been at Tennessee forever. It’s his fifth year in the program after he was rewarded with a medical redshirt in 2017. He wasn’t quite himself in 2018, but he’s finally healthy now. Tennessee has been religiously getting him the ball this year in any way possible, even letting him run wildcat or throw it. He’s a guy that’s given his all for Tennessee in a terrible era of Volunteer football, so it’s cool to see him finally having a healthy, productive year.
5) Again, despite the negative press around you guys, your defense has actually posted respectable stats. You’re holding opponents to 4.0 yards per carry and under 200 passing yards per game. Is your defense really better than it’s given credit for? What kind of scheme do they run on a normal basis?
The defense has come along over the last few weeks, no doubt. A big issue early was injuries — senior linebacker Daniel Bituli, who is the quarterback of the defense, missed the games against Georgia State and BYU. That hurt a ton. Tennessee’s top cornerback Bryce Thompson, a freshman All-American in 2018, missed the first three games. They lost senior nickel Baylen Buchanan with a spine issue, while losing senior nose tackle Emmit Gooden in camp as well. That’s quite a bit of leadership and experience gone from a roster that really was in no place to replace it, so it took a minute to adjust.
Out of the bye week, Tennessee got Georgia. They put up a respectable fight and held Jake Fromm and company in check for nearly a half, which was a win after what we saw against Florida. A week later, they totally shut Mississippi State down, keeping them out of the endzone until late in the fourth quarter. So I think the arrow is pointing up there.
Tennessee plays primarily out of nickel, utilizing that fifth defensive back in a ’STAR’ role. Baylen Buchanan was supposed to be that guy, but it’s been Shawn Shamburger after his injury. Darrell Taylor is the guy in Tennessee’s pass rush, maybe the only guy that demands extra attention on passing downs. Pruitt and Ansley ramped up the pressure with more aggressive blitzing last week, so that’s something to watch on Saturday night.
6) What is the strongest position group on your defense?
I’d say linebacker, but interestingly enough, it’s also the place where Tennessee has the least amount of depth. They’ve lost Will Ignont, Shanon Reid and Jeremy Banks, forcing Pruitt and Derrick Ansley to shuffle things around. But Tennessee is really, really good at the top. Daniel Bituli is outstanding and as I mentioned above, he’s responsible for getting Tennessee lined up. Henry To’o To’o — someone you guys know plenty about — has been nothing short of an absolute stud so far. Unfortunately, he got popped for targeting in the second half last week, meaning he’s going to miss the first half of this one. But those two are playmakers in the teeth of the Vols’ defense, both of which are very responsible for the defense improving.
7) Any unheralded players that we Alabama fans should worry about busting a big play on us?
Probably receiver Josh Palmer. He’s been quiet this year, but the entire offense has been handicapped by the quarterback spot. Things seem a little more open with Maurer running the show. Palmer is another big guy that can run and win down the field. He really showed up in Tennessee’s upset of Auburn last year. It’s about time to get him rolling with Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway demanding plenty of attention.
8) What’s your final score prediciton?
The correct answer is whatever Nick Saban wants it to be. But I’ll go Alabama 56, Tennessee 20.
9) Finally, how do you expect the rest of the season to go for Tennessee?
I think Knoxville feels a lot better about the second half of the season after last week. We’ve seen some improvement now and have an ounce of hope with Brian Maurer. There’s no reason why this team can’t beat Kentucky and Vanderbilt. You’ll get UAB in November, plus a couple of very interesting games against Missouri and South Carolina. I think Tennessee finds its way to 5-7… and then feels really, really bad about how that BYU game slipped away.