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Alabama Crimson Tide Football vs Tennessee Volunteers Preview: Q&A with Rocky Top Talk

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What do the insiders think about Tennessee’s quick improvement so far in 2021?

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

This week I spent some time talking (both trash and otherwise) with Nick Carner over at Rocky Top Talk. It took all the will power I had to even open up that website with its gaudy orange to find the right person to talk to.

After all of that, though, Nick gave us one of the best Q&As I’ve done the last couple of years. Also go check out the other half over on their site.

1) I figured Josh Heupel was going to be a total disappointment and over his head in the SEC, but, from the outside looking in, Tennessee seems to be improving rather quickly this year, especially on offense. How are Tennessee fans feeling about the hire halfway through his first season?

Listen — I was right there with you, pal. I picked Tennessee to win four games in the preseason and thought that might have been even a little generous. I think the... Heup... train *ducks* has gotten progressively more full as the season’s gone on. Even the most hesitant among us are at least on board with believing Heupel is an actual football coach and not like a couple kids hiding under a Tennessee wind breaker.

Look, the offense is capable of putting up points, and Tim Banks’ defense has been better than any Tennessee fan expected. Two of the three losses — Pittsburgh and Ole Miss — were 100-percent winnable games that the Vols just didn’t quite do enough to bring home. All that’s worth something to fans like myself who expected this year to be an unmitigated disaster.

Most of the reasonable fans are cautiously optimistic, but they know this four-game stretch is going to be brutal and that the outcomes of these games will have just as much to do with Tennessee’s roster deficiencies as they do what happens on the field.

2) Will Hendon Hooker and Tiyon Evans actually play this weekend? Trying to write previews for the Vols and not knowing if either of them will be available has been quite difficult on me.

Josh Heupel is intentionally vague in his injury updates. Last week, he’d talked about how Evans was looking better in practice late in the week, and then Evans told everybody on IG live that he was playing. And then he didn’t play.

After the Ole Miss game, I was worried Hooker was done for the year, and apparently early in the week he wasn’t putting any weight on that injured leg. But yesterday Heupel said Hooker is “getting some work in,” at practice which I assume means maybe some jogging and light throwing.

So, I mean, I dunno really. There’s some folks saying that if Hooker isn’t 100 percent then he shouldn’t play. No real reason to trot him out there if he’s not at full go in a game that’s probably gonna be a loss with or without him. I understand the rationale there.

With Evans, I think he was pretty close to playing last week so it would make sense that he definitely plays this week, right? He’s getting around fine on campus — no boot or weird little knee-scooter thing. My official guess is Evans plays, but Hooker sits.

3) If Alabama wants to shut down the Tennessee offense that’s averaging nearly 40 points per game... How do they need to do it? And as a follow up, what players for the Vols could make any schematic adjustments from the Tide defense a moot point?

Well, that depends. If Hooker doesn’t play it won’t be that difficult. Just wait for Joe Milton to miss. I’m kidding there, but only sorta. Milton’s been extremely inconsistent throwing the ball, and don’t even get me started on him running out of bounds at the end of the Ole Miss game. Maddening.

Right now, though, no matter who’s at QB, the offensive line ain’t in great shape and is likely to be a liability. This season was going to be difficult up front even when the season started and all the guys were healthy. At this point, the Vols are probably starting a former walk-on at right tackle.

In the second half of the South Carolina game, the Gamecocks had some success playing tight man coverage on the outside and putting an extra guy in the box to help with containing the QB run. But I imagine Alabama’s front seven is going to be too much for the Vols to handle which will make strategy somewhat of a secondary concern.

4) Is Velus Jones eligible for social security yet?

Maybe? Y’all know anybody who could make sure he’s receiving the “benefits,” he deserves? 8^ )

5) Defensively, Tennessee’s 4-2-5 scheme seems very similar to what Alabama uses. However, the Tide focuses on getting pass rush from some true edge rushers, while the Volunteer defensive ends are a bit bigger. With that in mind, how will Tim Banks get a pass rush on Bryce Young? Blitzes? Or will he try to do it with just the front 4?

While Tennessee’s DL has been surprisingly productive this year, it’s not going to “wow,” you with dynamic playmakers. Interior guys Matthew Butler (who played 80 snaps against Ole Miss) and Elijah Simmons are space eaters, while edge guys Tyler Baron and Byron Young are probably going to generate most of the pass rush. The pressure will probably be generated mostly with blitzes, be it from LBs Aaron Beasley and Jeremy Banks or nickel DB Theo Jackson. Something of note: Tennessee ranks second in the country in tackles for loss, and while TFL and sacks aren’t the same thing, they do typically reflect similar concepts.

6) How’s Brandon Turnage doing? The dude made one great play in the spring game for us and then took off. Not really any bad blood, so I think we’re all kind of rooting for him. Maybe?

I don’t quite know what to make of Turnage yet. I know we were excited about his decision to transfer here, but he’s been mostly quiet, seeing time sparingly as a backup DB and special-teams guy. I say “mostly quiet,” because he absolutely balled out in the one game he saw extensive action. Against South Carolina, he started at the nickel for injured Theo Jackson and tallied 14 tackles ( two TFLs) en route to winning SEC Defensive Player of the Week. The Vols start upperclassmen at each position in the defensive backfield, so I’d say he’s a guy the staff plans to rely on more next year.

7) Are there any freshman making a big impact for Tennessee that are gonna be a pain for us in the next few years?

Tennessee has just two freshmen who show up on the depth chart right now in third-string RB Jaylen Wright and WR Walker Merrill, though neither guy sees the field very often. Still, I’m stoked on both guy’s long-term potential, and the fact that either gets snaps in non-special teams’ situations indicates the staff agrees to some extent. The only other freshman I’m really sold on it DB Christian Charles. He blocked a punt in the Pittsburgh game and then started against Missouri a few games later — I think he’s entrenched in the two-deep somewhere next season.

8) Feel free to make a game prediction... Or not. Some folks don’t like predictions, so I’ll leave that one up to you.

Yeah — I’m not a big fan of making score predictions, but I think Bama wins relatively easy. There’s a decent chance the Vols come out hot like they did against Missouri and South Carolina, but so much of that depends on how collectively healthy the team is come kickoff that it’s hard to predict at this point.

9) Tell the truth.... Did you throw the mustard bottle last weekend?

(ed. note: No comment was given on this question)

10) Finally, what will it take for this season to be looked back at as a success by fans?

Barring a Chernobyl-esque meltdown, the season’s already a success on the grand scale. Fans have seen that Heupel can put up points, and the defensive coaches seem to have those guys playing above their talent level, despite the inherent handicaps created by the offensive tempo. The Vols are looking at six wins if they lose the next three games (UA, UK, UGA) but manage victories against Vandy and South Alabama. Losing three out of the last five games isn’t ideal, but it beats the hell out of cheating, doing it almost incomprehensibly bad and still finishing with just three wins.