KNOXVILLE - A couple of position changes took place within the Tennessee roster this week. The Vols will go on the road for just the second time in seven games Saturday. And the weather in Knoxville is getting colder.
Change is everywhere, but that didn’t stop the Vols from practicing inside Neyland-Thompson Sports Center on Wednesday morning.
“We piped in a lot of noise today,” head coach Derek Dooley said. “This is only our second game in a hostile environment. It took us awhile at Florida to really settle down and start executing. We have to make sure the environment doesn’t affect us from playing as good as we can play. It gets tough on third down. We need to keep working on it, stay composed and execute the offense.”
Part of executing the offense is quarterback Matt Simms’ ability to communicate with new center Alex Bullard before the snap. Bullard, who started the first six games at left guard, switched spots with James Stone this week.
They’ll get the opportunity to play at their new positions for the first time in front of 101,821 crimson-clad fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
“There’s never really a good time to make a change,” Dooley said. “You can make a lot of arguments on when is the right time. I don’t really make them based on who we’re playing and where we’re playing. I make them based on what I think our team needs to do to be successful. Sometimes you’re going to have to live with some growing pains because you (if) you don’t do it this week and then you do it next week, then you have one less game of experience of doing it. There’s never a good time and you just hope it’s the right decision.”
A less drastic change, junior Prentiss Waggner will be featured more at cornerback, but will still see time at free safety where he has started all six games.
“We need better corner play, in some third down situations especially,” Dooley said. “Prentiss was there in the beginning. That was kind of what we wanted to do all back in fall camp. We weren’t able to do that when we lost a safety, but Brian Randolph has been playing better. We’ll keep tinkering with it. Teague will keep playing, and we just keep shuffling it around to try to find something that works on gameday.”
In whatever role he fulfills, expectations are high for Waggner.
“Dating back to last year, this spring and early this fall, Prentiss has shown that he is a crafty guy,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “He knows how to play routes and knows what offenses are trying to do to him in terms of spacing. He just has good instincts, so we expect him to go out there and play well.”
THE BEST KEEP ON COMING
A week after facing a defense allowing the fourth-fewest yards in the NCAA in LSU, the Vols will now take on the top-defense in terms of fewest yards allowed — Alabama. The Crimson Tide allow just 184.1 yards per game with a national-best 3.16 yards per play allowed. In fact just two other teams allow less than 4.0 yards per play: Michigan State (3.27) and last week’s opponent LSU (3.96). The Tide also leads America in scoring defense, allowing 7.0 per game.
The challenges of taking on another defensive power is one that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney fully understands. He hopes to use some of last week’s work versus the Tigers to help the Vols in preparation for Alabama.
“They are both very, very good defenses,” Chaney said. “It seems to me that Alabama is little more complex in the secondary, if I talk schematically. As far as 11 guys on the field, it’s the same talented 11 guys. They placed them in different positions, but they are very talented kids. The scheme is a little different, but 11 very fine athletes.”
One area the Vols showed well against LSU was in the running game. The Vols gained 111 yards on the ground to push LSU’s season allowed average up to 75.1 per game. This week will be even a tough challenge as Alabama leads the NCAA in fewest rushing yards allowed, giving up a stout 38.1 yards per game. That’s 20 yards more than the second-stringiest rush defense, Stanford (59.5).
Chaney was happy with Tennessee’s resolve in the rushing game led by senior Tauren Poole’s 70 yards vs. LSU, the most by a Tigers’ foe all season.
“I’m very pleased, coming out of the LSU game,” Chaney said. “We wanted to be more physical and I felt like we attempted to do that up front. The running backs ran hard and the fullbacks blocked good. And Mych (Rivera) was involved in the run game. Of all the things that took place — you are always trying to find a silver lining — I think our kids came out and played physical football.”
As good as the Alabama defense has been this season, the Crimson Tide’s offense has had its fair share of success this season as well. Entering Saturday’s game against the Vols, Alabama leads the SEC in scoring at 39.71 points per game, as well as rushing offense with an average of 241.57 yards per game on the ground. The Tide is also second in the league in total offense (466.17/game) and fourth in passing offense (336.83/game).
“In terms of formations, they give you a lot of different looks, they give you a lot of different shifts and motions,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “They don’t just line up in a formation and run the play. They will some, but they have shown a lot more variation than some of the teams we have played in the last couple of weeks and they are very good at what they do. They run inside zone, that’s kind of their bread-and-butter play. They also run the power play, but they do it very, very well.”
Much of Alabama’s success can be traced back to one trait that extends to all facets of its offense: physicality.
“They are as physical as anybody (in the country),” Wilcox said. “They get downhill on you quick, the back breaks a lot of tackles, their O-line is extremely physical, the tight ends are physical and their wide receivers block on the edges. They are very good.”
While much of the focus has been placed on Heisman Trophy hopeful running back Trent Richardson, and rightfully so, the play of sophomore quarterback A.J. McCarron has also been a major contributing factor to the Tide’s smooth operation on offense so far this season.
“He is very efficient and he does exactly what they need him to do,” Wilcox said. “He can throw the ball down the field and is very accurate with intermediate routes. They do a very good job with the screen game as well to try to slow your rush down. You have to be disciplined in the screen game or they can bust one of those and split you. As a complete offense, they are very well rounded and very well coached.”
Head coach Derek Dooley
(On playing on the road)
“I think it was new to them. We didn’t play as composed when adversity hit us as we should. That’s what happens. You have to get used to playing in those environments, keeping your mind clear from all of the external things that are going on in a game and making sure that you’re doing what you need to do to play your best.”
(On the play of Malik Jackson and Daniel Hood on the defensive line)
“Those two are playing a lot better than how we played last year. As a whole, we’re playing a lot better than how we did last year even though the results may not appear that way. I don’t know if it does or doesn’t. We’ve been playing, to this point, a lot better. Not as good as we need to, but a lot better.”
(On preparing for Alabama)
“Who we’re playing really doesn’t affect how we prepare. Our preparation is the same very week. Schematically, they’re very different from what LSU was on defense. They’re very different in some way in what they do on offense. Every week is a new week and a new plan. You go work the plan and then hope it pays off on Saturday.”
(On Alabama’s size)
“This is a big stature game at every position. These guys are big, fast and strong from top to bottom. If you’re little, weak and slow, you’re going to have a tough time Saturday night.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney
(On Matt Simms’ performance vs. LSU)
“It’s about I thought after the ball game. He made a few mistakes. He made some nice plays too. Some things go unnoticed. A little flip play to Devrin (Young), was a hell of good football play at quarterback. He realizes he made a mistake on the one downfield pick. The other pick he threw earlier in the game was my mistake, a bad call throwing it up there on their better corner. I’ll eat that first one. The second one was his. We will work this thing together. We will go back to work and try to do the best we can this week.”
(On usage of Mychal Rivera)
“That’s always difficult when you are trying to help with protections with the tight ends, but you have to find ways to get him the ball. I had a bunch of plays down (for him), but we just couldn’t get to it.”
(On dropped passes by receivers)
“That’s a confidence deal. They have to believe in themselves. They have to believe Matt’s going to deliver the ball to them. We have worked on that all week. We have talked a lot about confidence with our kids, being able to go out there and make the play when they are called upon to make the play. They understand that and trying better to do that. We don’t accept the drops. We don’t want that, but occasionally it happens.”
(On second-half starts)
“This past week, we drove the ball down and on 2nd-and-7, we lost seven yards. I would say (it was) like any other halftime. Our drive was fine until we lost seven yards. I would say it’s no different than any other drive we’ve had during the season. Don’t go backwards and you are inevitably going to go forwards.”
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox
(On the play of the defense in the second half vs. LSU)
“Execution is what it boils down to. We were in the right places for the most part, our line assignment was good, we just didn’t execute as well in the second half as we did in the first half. That’s what this game is about, especially when you play good teams. You have to get the guy on the ground when he is in your gap and in the pass game we have to compete for the ball when it is in the air. That’s essentially what it was.”
(On Brian Randolph)
“He did a good job (against LSU). He was far from perfect, but the guy plays hard, he plays physical and he isn’t overwhelmed by being out there. We expect him to continue to get better and are pleased with where he is going. He has done a very good job, but there is no ‘for a freshman.’ Alabama doesn’t care that Brian Randolph is a freshman, so we can’t treat him like that. Whether that is fair or not is up for debate, but the reality is that he has a job to do and we expect him to do it.”
(On Trent Richardson)
“He is a very, very talented guy. He runs very hard and has good vision. I don’t like saying this guy is the best or that guy is the best, but he is in the argument with any back in the country I would think.”
(On Eddie Lacy as a complement to Richardson)
“They are always keeping (Richardson) fresh, so they have a couple other backs that can roll in there that are very talented as well. I think that is a way for them to not overload him, but to make sure he gets his touches.”