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Tennessee Q&A With Rocky Top Talk

Earlier this week. OK. Earlier today I sent some questions over to Will at Rocky Top Talk about this years Vol team. Here are the responses.

1: Tennessee started two Freshmen linebackers last week against Montana and by all accounts they acquitted themselves pretty well. The question I have is how do you think they will fare with a major step up in quality against the Bearcats run game. And more specifically a ridiculously explosive runner in Isaiah Pead who has a tendency to magnify the smallest of mistakes in gap control.

A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt bring more physicality to the position that anyone Tennessee has had there recently - they're just freshmen, but Johnson is 6'3" 245, and Maggitt is 6'3" 225.  However, last week the Vols used veteran Daryl Vereen and starting MLB Austin Johnson as the two linebackers in their nickel package, which they're expected to use a lot again this week.  Vereen is undersized (5'11" 215) but apparently has more of a handle on the scheme, and thus may be a better choice to be in the right spot against the run game.  

2: The Vols offensive line had their struggles in 2010. They finished 91st in Adjusted Line Yards and 108th in Adjusted Sack Rate with a slew of new starters. All of those guys are back in 2011 and it seemed that the expectation was that there would be a sizable improvement in production this year. Yet the Montana game brought forth many of the same struggles in run blocking and pass protection. Is the O-Line the going concern for Vols fans on an offense that seems otherwise devoid of major issues?

I think many of us were guilty of assuming a group of big young offensive linemen with all kinds of high school accolades were going to go from terrible as freshmen to tremendous as sophomores.  It's clear after the Montana game that the Vols still have some growing up to do on the line.  The run game as a whole was a major concern, especially because four of these five linemen played together last year, thus they should have been more fluid in the blocking scheme.  It looked like Tyler Bray was comfortable checking down, and at this point he's used to getting hit, but we'd still like to avoid it.  If the majority of the run game struggles can be placed on the o-line - and Tauren Poole was a 1,000 yard rusher last year, so you don't want to blame him - then they're definitely the greatest concern on the offensive side of the ball.

3: Historically the Vols have really hung their collective hats on the defensive line to own the line of scrimmage and dominate people. How does the current crop measure up to that linage.

For the last six years, Tennessee's sack totals have been really low.  The Vols have mis-evaluated talent at defensive tackle especially - UT hasn't signed a consistent starter at defensive tackle out of high school since 2005.  Their top four tackles right now are a former offensive lineman, two former defensive ends, and a juco transfer.  Sophomore end Jacques Smith has showed flashes of brilliance, and he was in the backfield a bunch last week even though the Vols didn't get a sack.  Malik Jackson at tackle is preseason All-SEC.  But at the other tackle and other end spots, the Vols are still very unproven - everyone keeps waiting on juco Maurice Couch to overtake former o-lineman Daniel Hood at tackle, but it hasn't happened yet.  And Ben Martin (from Cincinnati) is a fifth year senior and a former five star recruit at end, but he's coming off an achilles tear last season and we're still unsure what we'll get from him.  It could be a productive line, but it's still a long way from what it used to be around here.  

4: Tyler Bray and Zach Collaros have something in common. A proven record for making iffy decision making as both threw double digit interceptions in 2010. By all accounts Bray had one of his best games of his young career against Montana. But the jury appears to still be out on whether that was a one game blip on the radar or the herald of a new, improved and somewhat sensible Tyler Bray. What's your take.

I absolutely believe it was Bray's best game.  His November stretch last year featured horrendous defenses and the playmaking ability of WR Denarius Moore, who bailed him out on a number of deep throws into double and triple coverage.  Bray has a great feel on the deep ball, and we saw it early against Montana.  But Tennessee never really went back to it last week, instead giving Bray work in the short-to-intermediate passing game.  And he did very well:  he completed 70.8% of his passes, which is ten points higher than anything he did last year.  Again, it was Montana...but the gunslinging was toned down, and he executed the offense with tremendous ease.  We certainly expect the Vols to take more chances down the field this week, and it remains to be seen if Bray will continue to be smart there.

5: Janzen Jackson was supposed to be the rock star of the Tennessee defense. He was the most talented defensive back, if not the most talented guy on the team period. So his dismissal obviously will have some longer term effects on the group, even though they didn't really show up in the Montana game. How does the staff go about replacing a player with his skill set against a UC team that will throw it 30 or 40 times on Saturday. 

Janzen Jackson was a tremendous safety, who may have even been a little undervalued just because he played right after Eric Berry.  He was a tremendous athlete who could also drop a wide receiver with a punishing hit.  The Vols shifted preseason All-SEC corner Prentiss Waggner to Janzen's free safety spot; Waggner has a tremendous knack for finding the football (five picks last year, three for touchdowns), but he's not the best tackler in the world.  The Vols plugged in true freshman Justin Coleman at corner, who gave up an 80 yard touchdown when he mis-timed his jump.  Tennessee couldn't even run a dime package last season because they didn't have enough bodies they trusted.  As a result, UT signed a ton of defensive backs, including jucos Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier.  The Vols have around ten bodies who could play back there, but they're still trying to find the right combination of four-to-six to make the field.  As a result, I'm sure there will be opportunities for a veteran Cincinnati passing game to take advantage of UT's inexperience in the secondary.

6: Give the Bearcat fans who are heading down to Knoxville a must see/do event or attraction for gameday in Tennessee

If you're early, check out the Vol Walk at 1:15 followed by the Pride of the Southland Marching Band's entrance to Neyland Stadium at 1:50.  Or come down by the river to see the Vol Navy and get a burger or some BBQ from Calhoun's - you won't find anything better around the stadium.