October 3, 2013

Insider's Q&A: UT




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Despite what some may lead you to believe, there's never an off-week in the Southeastern Conference.

That includes Saturday afternoon's game in Knoxville between sixth-ranked Georgia (3-1, 2-0) and Tennessee (3-2, 0-1).

The Volunteers are in are in a rebuilding year under first-year coach Butch Jones, while the Bulldogs are in the proverbial driver's seat for the SEC East crown with perhaps a shot at even greater glory down the road.

But that's a long way away.

Saturday's there's a more pressing matter against the Volunteers, so to help us break it down, Rob Lewis of Volquest.com stops by to answer some poignant questions about this year's Tennessee squad.

Disregarding what the "experts" are saying about this game, how can Tennessee give Georgia a run for its money and perhaps pull off the upset?

Lewis - "I think the biggest thing based on what we've seen is scoring points. I know that Georgia has given up some big numbers but they've also played some really good teams so I don't think Tennessee obviously is able to bring it like Clemson, South Carolina or LSU. There's just a lot of inexperience at wideout and at quarterback. The timing has been off, big plays haven't been there so that to me will be the biggest stumbling block. I think Tennessee has made some real strides on defense from last year but I don't think they're good enough to really slow down what we've seen from Aaron Murray and that offense. If it gets into a shootout, I don't think Tennessee is going to be able to compete."

Obviously balance has been the name of the game for Georgia, what do you think Coach Jancek's approach will be try and negate that on Saturday afternoon?

Lewis - "I think that they go into this game and every game trying to eliminate the big play. That's easier said than done against Georgia because I really think the challenge from the get-go will be how Tennessee is able to stop the run without committing extra people to it. Brian Randolph the free safety has been having a great year leading the team in tackles and an interception. He's going to be a key in finding that balance in between plays downhill and keeping his eyes focused on Aaron Murray who is like a magician in play-action and certainly having the run game those guys do that puts a team vulnerable to those play-action things. I think just not getting beat deep and not giving up big plays down the field is the focus, making Georgia go the long way and hoping for some turnovers is what they're hoping for. Tennessee has made some real strides on defense from where they were but they're still not quite up to SEC standards. I think they're missing some disruptive players. Seeing Leonard Floyd burst in off the edge to get that big sack on Zach Mettenberger, those are the kinds of disruptive plays that Tennessee hasn't quite stocked up with yet. They've got people playing better than they did last year, but the focus is still keeping those big plays to a minimum. Looking at Georgia's stats, three receivers over 15 yards a catch with double-digit catches, so Georgia can stretch the field and that's what Tennessee is worried about first and foremost."

Georgia's defense has obviously given up its share of points, as like most teams in the conference it seems, how do you anticipate Tennessee trying to attack it in order to have optimal success?

Lewis - "I think without question it will be the run game. The offensive line is Tennessee's strong point and probably can be said is one of the best in the conference. They just don't have the horses and skill people to take advantage of it. Rajion Neal is a quality SEC tailback, but when you look around the league it's hard to say he been anything but average. Now, being an average SEC running back still means you're a hevkuva football player but I don't think he's one of those upper-echelon guys because he's put up some big numbers against some really big numbers on the ground against the cupcakes of their schedule. But you look at what they did at Florida, he really struggled there and with the way Worley has played at quarterback and receiver, I really feel moving the chains is going to be dependent on the ground. Now I know Georgia has looked a little susceptible at times on the ground against South Carolina, but frankly Tennessee just hasn't scared anybody that they're going to beat anybody over the top to get the safeties out of the box, so that's going to be the challenge for Tennessee, to find some balance on Saturday. I do think they can move the ball on the ground but they're just not scaring any defensive coordinators at all as there has been a lot of eight- and nine-man fronts."

How big of a game is this for quarterback Justin Worley?

"It's huge. You and Georgia fans know how much pressure there is at quarterback, and he's a new starter. He's catching a lot of flak and frankly has not gotten off to a very good start. How much of that is his fault, how much is in it the fact that he's got three freshman wide receivers that are three of his t targets out there. He's in a pretty tough spot. He's caught some boos in the second half against South Alabama after his three interception performance. But it's huge for him. It's his first big SEC home game. If he could play competently, not even pull off the upset, just show Tennessee fans that there's progress being made in the passing game I think that would go a long way to really solidifying things for him. But that old saying in football, not just college football, but the most popular player on the team in the backup quarterback and that applies here. Fans are clamoring to see a true freshman under center but so far Butch Jones has been really adamant that Worley is his guy and he's sticking with him."

Coach Richt called Tennessee's OL the best offensive line in the SEC and perhaps the country. You've covered this team a long time, where does it stack up in regards to other UT lines that you've seen?

Lewis - "I think they really probably are the most talented that I've seen, whether or not they're the most productive, I don't know. It's sort of been a weird situation because Butch Jones and his coaching staff are really trying to transition to a more physical style of offense where a lot more is involved with the run game whereas under Derek Dooley and former offensive coordinator Jim Chaney who is now at Arkansas, really took a pass-happy approach. These guys are great at pass-blocking, they really are, they protect the quarterback, and they did a great job of that last year and have picked up where they left off. I think where the short-comings come and where they're open for some criticism, its how nasty are they between the tackles. How are they at controlling the line of scrimmage. That's where this coaching staff has really been challenging them to show more, to do more. Talent-wise, I think it's very fair to say they've got four legitimate NFL prospects. Antonio Richardson at left tackle is a first-round guy and Ja'Wuan James is probably an early round selection so the talent is there. I don't know if the production has been quite what Tennessee fans had hoped to see but again, the fronts and the safeties that Tennessee has seen in the box has really made life tough on those guys up front and they've really been affected by the lack of a deep threat in the passing game."

How big a job does Coach Jones have to getting the program back where everyone expects and how long do you think it will take?

Lewis - "I think it's a big job. I think really to get where Tennessee fans want it to be, which is where Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and Alabama are, it's a three-year job to get there. Next year and I think 2015 you'll certainly see Tennessee taking some definite steps but this roster has definitely been hit by attrition. Three head coaches in the past five years and some real holes in them. They show up in depth, I mean, Tennessee has a walk-on freshman starting at nickel back, two walk-ons in the two-deep in the secondary, that's not upper-echelon SEC, that's not what your roster is supposed to look like. But Butch has really hit the ground running. They've done a great job in recruiting, and everybody knew this year was going to be tough. So far Tennessee comes in 3-2, they lost to Oregon, they lost to Florida and I don't think that's a surprise to anyone. Certainly fans are impatient, they want everything to happen now but you definitely get the impression that Butch Jones is laying a solid foundation. He took on a big rebuilding job."

Coach Jones and his staff really seem to be doing a great job on the recruiting trail so far. Why do kids really seem to be buying in to what he's had to say?

Lewis - "For one thing, Tennessee very really fortunate in this class to have had a stroke of good luck in that there are a lot of guys in the 2014 class who not only are they really good prospects but have some sort of ties to the program, whether it be a family member, a high school coach, an older brother, dad and they were able to get commitments from guys like that early. They've also done a really good job of adding to it. Plus, I know you've seen it, but I've never seen a group of guys as aggressive as recruiting for their future schools, not just recruiting but making sure they keep everyone else on board. (Jones) is a real personable guy, he relates well and he's got opportunities to sell. You can look at this roster and see that there's going to need to be a lot of changes to the two-deep, and that comes into play. That's big, facilities are top of the line in the SEC for what he's got to sell … he's just done a great job of selling the idea of bringing this place back and kids are buying in."

Talk about the 11 interceptions, has that been due to the scheme or guys just stepping up and making plays when the opportunity presents itself?

Lewis - "The biggest difference I see is the pass rush has helped out a lot of that. Last year, Tennessee was pitiful at putting pressure on the quarterback, finished last in the SEC with 17 sacks on the year. This year, they still only had six through five games which is not setting the world on fire but they have been a lot better about getting into the backfield and affecting the quarterback and having some guys in the secondary that I think have upgraded the athleticism back there. They've got a true freshman at one corner, Cameron Sutton, and he's had an interception, plus they've got Brian Randolph back who missed nine games last year with a torn ACL. He's been that heady, cerebral free safety who helps everybody get lined up and can help the nickel back when there's motion or a formation that he's not familiar with. He's a real smart guy back there and he's got three of those interceptions, and that's not a coincidence but I think getting to the quarterback, getting a little better and just having a third-year sophomore back there who can really help out. I'm don't want to underestimate the scheme because I think Tennessee played 12 games last year in utter confusion with their former defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, and things are a lot simpler back there, partly because there are so many young guys who are being thrown into action."

How much does Daniel McCullers really weigh?

Lewis - "I think he actually weighs 365 pounds. You say that, and it sounds weird, but he carries it well. He's every bit of 6-7. He's listed at 6-8, so that may be true."

What's the story behind breaking out the Smokey Grays for Georgia game?

Lewis - "It's just another example of Butch Jones trying to create some energy. You've been through the alternative uniform story before, and it just creates a lot of buzz and excitement but once that ball's kicked off, it will mean nothing. But Butch has done a great job of getting people excited about things around the program and that's a good example of it. He's worked really closely with Adidas to pull that off, and people are fired up about it. It's a big recruiting weekend, there will a lot of visitors on campus so that's another motivating factor to do something a little bit different but I don't think it will be even worth a field goal on Saturday."

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