Fans often ask, just what can we really learn from games against schools that look like alphabet soup? The answer to that is plenty, you just have to know where to look. The Vols took care of business on Saturday, September the 8th against the Buccaneers of ETSU to the tune of 59-3. FCS opponent or not, that is a score that should make Volunteer fans feel good about this team because they came out and did what they were supposed to do. Under Butch Jones, the Vols often came out to hiccups against teams they were quite frankly expected to roll over. That isn’t to say that the Vols played Saturday without issue, a different team seemed to come out of the tunnel after the second lightning delay in as many weeks than the one that first ran out of the T. Looking ahead to a game against UTEP, the Vols face another opponent that they should beat and beat badly. Still, this particular group of Volunteers has more of meaning that they can draw from this game, as well as the ETSU game, than you might expect.
The elephant in the room is the offensive line and their play for Tennessee. The line was beaten badly by West Virginia, especially transfer Nose Tackle Kenny Bigelow. Coming off a difficult performance, the Vols opened play in Neyland Stadium struggling mightily with the front seven from ETSU, particularly Nasir Player, who is expected to be a selection in the 2019 NFL Draft. Still, the line struggled initially against a unit that they should have been able to come out and physically outmatch. Whether the Vols were adjusting to being without Brandon Kennedy, lost for the 2018 season to a knee injury, struggling with a unique ETSU alignment up front, or just getting beat individually, the initial struggles the line had against the Bucs was concerning. And then the lightning delay happened. Tennessee came out after the delay, switched running backs to Jeremy Banks, and started running straight ahead at the Bucs. The Vols got a better push up front, created lanes for the freshman, and began to impose their will as they pushed the visitors from Johnson City around for the remainder of the game. So, what is there to make of all this, and what is there to look for going into the UTEP game?
Jeremy Pruitt has talked in multiple interviews about changing the culture at Tennessee, as well as this team needing to be more mentally tough. Pruitt has even gone as far as calling some of the team soft in an interview upon first taking the job. As a football player, particularly an offensive or defensive lineman, the worst things you can be called are soft or a quitter. Pruitt has said he has seen both on this team. No group seems to struggle more with the mental toughness or focus issue than the offensive line group. For some reason, they almost have the mentality of a dog that has been often kicked at this point. When something goes wrong, things tend to snowball on the line. This is also the second week in a row that they came out and badly missed assignments on the first drive while looking sloppy and unmotivated. It was also the second week in a row that they seemed to settle in and begin to push around a defensive front in the run game when they ran downhill at them. Kenny Bigelow and Nasir Player each had occasions where they lined up and simply beat the man across from them. While that is an issue, against good defensive players, that will happen time to time. However, for the most part, through two games the O Line seems to be struggling more with issues stemming from the neck up. That should actually be encouraging to Vol fans.
Why would the line struggling with mental mistakes make Vol fans feel better, especially against ETSU and UTEP? Simple. Those mistakes are fixable, in season, with good coaching. The returning starters on the Vol offensive line are all playing new positions in 2018, with Offensive Line Coach Will Friend insisting on the Vols going through spring and fall camp using multiple combinations of lineman in multiple positions, most are learning multiple new spots. Then, add in new arrivals from the JUCO ranks (Jahmir Johnson), Grad Transfers (Kennedy), and freshman arrivals (Jerome Carvin, Jerrious Abercrombie), all brand new to the program and you have another facet to adjust to. Other players in the rotation, like Chance Hall and K’Rojhn Calbert, missed all last season with injuries and now must learn new positions as they get back into shape and adjust to a new staff. If that wasn’t enough, the entire unit is also learning a new scheme on top of everything else. That is an enormous amount of change within a position group that is universally understood to thrive as they get consistency from playing in the same places and with the same players. Most of the guys in this unit are still learning what their individual jobs are with their new spots, forget learning how they play with the other guys around them. Look for the offensive line to take a step forward in about week four, after a month of game prep, games played, and game tape reviewed, the position responsibilities are likely to sink in, and it will look like a light switch flips for the line when it happens. Look for another step forward in week eight or nine as, after another month, these Vols begin to understand where they fit within the scheme of the line as a whole while developing chemistry and trust with the guys playing around them. UTEP is another live fire game for the Vols, and even if it isn’t a top tier opponent, it is meaningful snaps and experience for the Tennessee line to play together. Watch for the Vols understanding of assignments, fundamental play, and motivation in this one. These neck up issues should improve again this week, and if that is the case, it continues to bode well for the Vols.
Aside from the offensive line, watching the development of Tennessee’s young corners should be something meaningful to watch against the Miners. The ETSU receiving corps is simply not up to the level of talent that the Vols will face in SEC play, not even close. That is fine for the Bucs as an FCS program, but it meant that only so much can be gleaned from the performance of the Volunteer defensive backs across from them. That said, the fundamentals from corners Bryce Thompson and Alontae Taylor looked much better playing the Bucs. Thompson in particular had an impressive interception and nearly returned it for a touchdown. Thompson’s personality as a corner started to come out a bit as he played against ETSU. He is an aggressive, young corner. Opponents this season are going to be able to take advantage of his youth and aggressive attitude at times this season (Randy Sanders made an excellent call of a slant and go to go after Thompson that got him beat, but the pass was a step too long.), but you can live with a young player making mistakes when he is trying to make a play. You can happily live with it if he succeeds in making those plays like he did on Saturday. That in your face, scrappy, and a little fearless attitude that Thompson showed, and we have seen at times from Taylor, looks to be something Pruitt wants in corners and his defenders as a whole. UTEP may not have much in the way of firepower, but their receivers are speedy, which will offer a different challenge. Observing the technique and coverage of the corners will be worthwhile in this match up.
Another specific position to watch in the contest against the Miners will be the Nose Tackle spot when the Vols are in their 3-4 front. Emmit Gooden had a good game against the Bucs and showed the ability to command the double team that is paramount for the success of a 3-4 defense. Furthermore, he then showed the ability to split that double team and make tackles in the backfield. Now, this was against an FCS program, but Shy Tuttle has struggled to consistently command a double team, to stuff it, and to get off the blocks. Tuttle is playing hard and making plays, but he never came to Tennessee to be a 3-4 nose tackle. If Gooden could develop into the Nose that the Vols’ new scheme demands, it would free Tuttle up to slide out to a 3-4 end position which suits his skill set and style of play far more. This move would help Tennessee against the run and should also help the Vols generate more pass rush going forward into the season. Pruitt praised Gooden after his performance on Saturday, while also challenging the JUCO arrival, saying Gooden was a good player when his head was where it needed to be. Shy Tuttle is a talented player for Tennessee, and one that plays hard. He makes plays on the field and is undoubtedly one of the best eleven defenders the Vols have access too. He is doing that while playing out of position, and not commanding the double team that makes Pruitt’s 3-4 defense go. If Gooden can command that double team regularly as well as handle it, it allows Tennessee to see the lynchpin of the defense be addressed, while getting more out of a very good player. Who plays at the Nose and how they command and handle blocks is worth keeping an eye on when the Vols play the Miners Saturday.
Finally, these are games for Jeremy Pruitt and his staff to get to know their players, to see who is prepared, who can take advantage of an opportunity, and to see exactly what they have on this roster. The best examples of this from the ETSU game could be Bryce Thompson, discussed earlier, and Jeremy Banks. The freshman from Cordova, Tennessee was given an opportunity to come in for the Vols after the lightning delay when it was clear that Pruitt wanted to make a statement with an attitude type drive for the offensive line. Banks was given a chance, and he immediately showed Pruitt and all of Vol Nation what roll he can fill in the toolbox of backs available to Tennessee. Jeremy Banks is a hammer. A big, strong, hateful-running hammer, and it was just the tool the Vols needed at the time. Banks showed that he can be the straight ahead, downhill, power back that Pruitt is looking for in his offense, but Banks showed something else. He showed that even as a freshman sitting fourth on the depth chart, he was prepared if called on. He was mentally ready to play and seize on any opportunity presented. Ty Chandler was still out going through the concussion protocol, the Vols likely feeling it was safe to rest him another week against the Bucs, and the door opened for Banks. Two touchdowns and some bruising running later, banks all but took that door off the hinges on the way through. Chandler is likely to be held out again on Saturday, expected to be unnecessary for the Vols to handle the Miners, and allowed to keep healing up in hopes of having him available and fresh against Florida. That means Banks should expect some opportunities against UTEP after a breakout performance, as should the breakout performer from week one, Tim Jordan. How the workload is split up at running back will be interesting on Saturday, with the Vols having multiple productive backs, but the players that take hold of opportunities and make the most of them should be telling as well.
While the talent disparity between the Vols and the Bucs and Miners is dramatic, these are games where fans can find relevant things to watch and take away. These are still meaningful game snaps for a team that not only has young players, but players that are almost all learning new positions, expectations, and schemes. These are valuable snaps, and opportunities to watch Tennessee progress and grow mentally in the season. Keep an eye on personnel and who is on the field with who against the Miners, who takes advantage of opportunities, and how much Jauan Jennings is on the field. Pruitt addressed Jennings by name this week during media availability, and it might be that he is finally put on the field more and with the starters. Again, one more meaningful thing to observe in games that all inevitably lead to Florida week.