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Alabama Football vs Tennessee Preview: When the Volunteers have the ball

How will the Alabama defensive front hold up against Tennessee’s dynamic rushing attack?

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

7 games into the Josh Huepel era, and the Tennessee offense has, surprisingly, elevated themselves out of the multi-year dumpster fire we’ve all become used to. The Vols are averaging north of 39 points per game (11th in the nation) on the back of one of the most deadly rushing attacks in the country, supplemented with an efficient passing game.

I feel gross after typing that paragraph.

Anyway, as a little bit of background, Heupel is a former Oklahoma QB who went back to the Sooners from 2006-2014, where he was the QB coach and eventually offensive coordinator for Sam Bradford, Landry Jones, and Trevor Knight. He was also the offensive coordinator in Missouri for Drew Lock for a couple of years before taking his first head coaching job at UCF for the last three years, where his offenses were consistently top-10 in the country in scoring.

His offense blends a lot of the spread passing concepts that were so popular in the Big 12 in the early 2010s while featuring a prominent zone read rushing attack similar to the old Dan Mullen with Tebow/Prescott offenses. Thus far, the Vols are averaging 224 passing yards and 248 rushing yards per game.

Redshirt Senior QB Hendon Hooker has been an extremely efficient player for this offense, completing 68% of his passes at a very respectable 9.4 yards per attempt while only throwing a single interception. Hooker will eat a defensive alive with slants and 7 yard curls if they sit back in zone on him. He’s a bit limited on the deep ball and throwing to the sidelines, but is generally as solid and consistent as a coach could ask across the middle.

6th year senior and former USC transfer Velus Jones is the top receiver for Tennessee out of the slot, and the kick return specialist is always a danger to turn a 10-yard slant into a house call. 6’3” senior Cedric Tillman is next on the team with 23 catches for 294 yards as the go-to possession receiver.

Mississippi State transfer JaVonta Payton and speedy sophomore Jalin Hyatt are the #3 and #4 receivers up, and Payton in particular is averaging 22 yards per catch and leads the team with 4 touchdowns.

Tight ends Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant (cousin of NFL TE Noah Fant) are generally used more as H-back blockers, but both are used as catchers fairly often, combining for 21 catches and a shade over 200 yards.

The rushing game, though, is what makes this Volunteer offense go. It all starts with Hooker, who leads the team with 89 attempts. He’s got good size, good speed, and can make a man miss in the hole on a QB draw. While he doesn’t display a lot of scramble creativity or pocket awareness to evade rushers, he’s a deadly threat on designed runs.

With his generous zone reads and QB draws comes a bit of hesitancy on defenses for attacking ball carriers. And JUCO transfer Tiyon Evans has made the most of that. At 220 pounds, Evans is both powerful and extremely explosive, and is averaging 6.6 yards per carry for 482 yards and 6 touchdowns so far. He missed the Ole Miss game last week with an ankle injury, but is expected to be back for Alabama.

Evans splits his time about 60/40 with sophomore Jabari Small, who’s got 323 yards on 65 carries (5.0 yards per carry). Small isn’t quite as big or fast as Evans, but he’s tough to bring down and has quick, choppy feet and a nasty juke in open field.

This Tennessee offense is, first and foremost, going to test the Alabama defensive front’s toughness right up the gut. Evans and Small are going to do their best to break through gaps between the linemen, and Hooker will make the linebackers pay around the edge if they start cheating toward the running backs.

The Volunteer passing game won’t be what wins the game for them as the Tide secondary solidly outmatches their receivers (and the TEs and RBs are not very active in the passing game), but expect them to annoyingly covert a few 3rd and mediums with their endless array of slants.

The defense’s performance will depend almost totally on the guys up front (D.J. Dale, PhiDarian Mathis, Byron Young, Justin Eboigbe, and Tim Smith) maintaining gap discipline and standing up the offensive line at the line of scrimmage. If they can do that, then the Volunteer offense will likely snowball into a lot of stalled drives. If they can’t, though, it’s going to be a long game of getting gashed for 10-15 yards at a time.

My prediction is that much of the first half is the bad scenario as Tennessee runs the ball efficiently between the tackles and then gets a few busted plays as the linebackers and safeties cheat toward the center. But ultimately the talent difference takes over and the Alabama defensive line holds steady for most of the second half and only allows one score late.