A Volunteer Visit (Previewing Tennessee at Auburn Football)
Can the Vols play defense this year?
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for the another Auburn game preview! On October 13th, Auburn will host the Tennessee Volunteers. It has been a decade since Auburn last hosted Tennessee in an offensively challenged 14–12 scrum in the dying days of the Tommy Tuberville era. Fortune hasn’t been kind to the Vols in days since. Tennessee has run through a number of head coaches and hasn’t won a title of any sort since 2007.
Tennessee is rebuilding once again this year under former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Pruitt was frank about his new team’s performance this spring, grading the effort a “D.” He also lamented that some guys just “flat out quit.” The real challenge for Tennessee, as I see it, is rebuilding some toughness at the line of scrimmage. Last year’s Vol lines were awful on both sides of the ball. It led to a 4–8 finish on the year, 0–8 in the SEC.
This year, Tennessee opens in Charlotte with West Virginia, which should be a challenge. Tennessee then gets a couple of home tune-up games against East Tennessee State, and UTEP. The schedule gets brutal after that. The Vols host Florida, then travel to Georgia and Auburn. Auburn will have played Washington in Atlanta and hosted Alabama State, LSU, Arkansas and Southern Miss before traveling to Mississippi State.
On the offensive side of the ball, head coach Pruitt brings in veteran offensive guru Tyson Helton, who was the passing game coordinator at Southern Cal. last season. He will bring in a more balanced offensive style at Tennessee, which previously rarely ran any plays other than from the shotgun. We’ll wait and see on the results. Teams often transition from conventional to spread offenses with success. I really haven’t seen ANY team go from the spread to a pro-style attack and have much success in the first year.
The main weapon Tennessee returns on offense is junior receiver Marquez Calloway, who had five touchdown catches in 2017. Sophomore quarterback Jarrett Guarantano returns after a shaky freshman campaign, but he’ll face a challenge from transfer quarterback Kelley Chryst, who transferred from Stanford where he started most of the last couple of seasons. The main issue I see is that Chryst managed only a 54 percent completion rate in Stanford’s offense. Tennessee was poor up front last year on the O-line, and they lose their best rusher to graduation. They were still mixing and matching up front this spring.
Frankly, Coach Pruitt inherits a mess of a defense. It was just plain bad up front last year, giving up 5.4 yards per carry on the ground. The Vols only picked off 5 passes all year and got seriously pushed around by the likes of Kentucky and Vanderbilt. The pieces are in place to bolster line production this season, but there’s not enough there to make a run at a division title.
On special teams, Tennessee will have to find a punter, but part-time starting kicker Brent Cimaglia returns. Tennessee was pretty average on returns and coverage. Cimaglia hit 4 touchbacks on 10 kickoffs last season.
Unit matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Tennessee offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are senior Dontavius Russell and junior Derrick Brown. Junior strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side is a rotation between sophomores TD Moultry and Big Kat Bryant. Auburn can play monster sophomore Nick Coe at any position on the line with great results. Auburn has serious depth all across the line as well. Tennessee’s offensive line projects to be very young. Tackles should be sophomores Trey Smith and Devante Brooks. Sophomore guards will be Joey Cave and Ryan Johnson. Center is a huge concern as Tennessee was down to walk-ons in the spring game. Despite all of that, this unit just MASHED the D-line in UT’s spring game. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Tennessee backs: The Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Senior Deshaun Davis leads the bunch, seniors Darrell Williams and Montravious Atkinson are able to play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players out on the field at a given time. Auburn has lots of depth behind the starters as well. Auburn’s linebackers play with leverage and are sure tacklers. Sophomore Ty Chandler looks to be Tennessee’s primary runner next season after picking up 326 rushing yards last season. The H-back/fullback picture is a mess. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Tennessee receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in juniors Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean. Junior Jeremiah Dinson could move over from safety, if needed. Sophomore converted wide receiver Noah Igbinoghene turned heads this spring and could be a co-starter on either side. John Broussard Jr. provides quality depth. Junior Marquez Calloway is the main threat on the Vol roster, and we know Auburn will double him. Sophomore Josh Palmer figures to start on the other side, having caught 9 balls last season. The rest of the crew caught exactly one ball from the bench last season. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Tennessee secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features Juniors Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas at safety. Thomas was an experienced backup last season, and Dinson played nickel back. Dinson can play every position in the secondary well but has missed considerable time with injuries over the past 3 seasons. Sophomore Jordyn Peters is listed as Auburn’s top nickel back as of now. Auburn is very young behind the starters. We don’t know who will win the starting Tennessee quarterback job. Sophomore Jarrett Guanantano looked decent this spring but will be pushed by transfer Stanford quarterback Kelley Chryst. Junior Brandon Johnson was a good receiver out of the slot last year and figures to be again this year. Junior tight end Eli Wolf caught 24 balls last season. Advantage: Even.
Punting: For now, sophomore Aiden Marshall is the starter, backed up by Ian Shannon. Both were inconsistent last year and didn’t do much to impress in Auburn’s A-Day game in bad weather. Australian import Arryn Siposs is expected to come in and win the starting punting job this fall. Last season, Shannon averaged 39.8 yards per punt, and Marshall averaged 39.4. Tennessee is auditioning punters, as well. Tennessee was decent in coverage, allowing 30 returns for a 7.3 yards per return average. Auburn was not good last season, giving up 11.4 yards per return. Auburn is still looking for a replacement return man. Marquez Calloway managed 8.4 yards per punt return last season for Tennessee on 13 returns. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Auburn redshirt freshman Anders Carlson has no experience but given his displayed leg strength on A-Day, I think kicking a lot of touchbacks should be a given next season. Also, there is a new fair-catch rule in effect this season, that puts the ball at the 25. I think we will see a lot of fair catches on anything fielded inside the 5 this season. We are not sure who’ll be kicking off for the Vols this season. Auburn will return kickoffs with sophomore Noah Igbinoghene, who averaged 23.8 yards per return last season despite only fair-to-poor blocking. Sophomore Ty Chandler averaged 24.4 yards per return last season for Tennessee, including one taken to the house. Auburn was awful on kick coverage giving up 27.2 yards per return last season. Fortunately, Carlson can produce a lot of touchbacks. Tennessee gave up 23.0 yards per return, a less than average number. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Anders Carlson of Auburn has no experience, but he did hit 4 of 4 in bad weather in Auburn’s spring game. I watched him in warmups, too. His only miss in practice was from 53 yards, hitting the upright. Tennessee had a revolving door of kickers last season. Sophomore Brent Cimaglia returns to take over the job, having hit 8 of 13 field goals last season. Advantage: Even.
Auburn offensive line vs. Tennessee defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked decent on A-Day. Auburn is set at the guard spots with veteran juniors Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell. Left tackle seems solid with junior Prince Tega Wanagho, who reputedly took the next step forward this spring after struggling last season in limited starts. Right tackle was a battle this spring between freshmen Austin Troxell and Calvin Ashley. Both had good moments, but Auburn turned around and signed graduate transfer Jack Driscoll from UMass. Driscoll played last season against SEC foes Tennessee and Mississippi State and allowed just 1 quarterback pressure. Center is another big question mark for Auburn. Junior Kaleb Kim and redshirt freshman NickBrahms were battling for the starting job, but both went out with injuries and may or may not be back for the season opener. Converted H-back/tight end/walk-on Tucker Brown started on A-Day and actually did a good job. By midseason, I’m confident that line coach J. B. Grimes will have a strong offensive line out there. Grimes did a really solid job with the Auburn line in his previous stint from 2013–2015. Grimes has been greatly missed the past couple of seasons! It’s a mash unit up front for Tennessee. Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt likes to run a 3-man front, but it may not be possible with the players Tennessee currently has on the line. I’d expect some combination of seniors Shy Tuttle, Kyle Phillips, Jonathan Kongbo, Alexis Taylor and junior Darrell Taylor to start. The bad news for the Vols are that these guys got seriously whipped by a makeshift starting offensive line in the Vol spring game. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Tennessee linebackers: Auburn features senior H-back Chandler Cox, a 4-year starter, blowing open holes. The real question is who will carry the ball. Junior Kam Martin is blazing fast but has had durability issues in the past. Junior Malik Miller has size, power, and a few carries here and there but hasn’t been used much. Sophomore Devan Barrett has been moved to receiver. Auburn played freshmen JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin a lot on A-Day. Both were suspect in pass blocking, and running sideways or backwards. Whitlow dropped several passes. The best A-Day runner for the second year in a row was junior walk-on C. J. Tolbert, who had 137 yards. Tolbert is on the small side and didn’t have an actual carry in 2017. We do know, after watching the Gus Malzahn offense for 8 years at Auburn, there will be a bell-cow running back identified, tearing SEC defenses up, as long as the offense is balanced. Again, well… it’s a big question in the linebacker corps. Can Tennessee find 4 SEC-worthy guys to put on the field? Current candidates include junior Daniel Bituli, who’s really good, and junior Quart’e Sapp, who’s not bad, either. Who the other pair will be is currently an open question. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Tennessee corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were juniors Nate Craig-Myers and Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly, have good height, and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had the catch of the day on A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside as well. Likely starters for the Vols are junior Marquill Osborne and sophomore Shawn Shamburger. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Tennessee safeties: This is a strength-against-strength matchup with lots of experience on both sides. Auburn senior Ryan Davis shattered the team single-season receptions mark last year with 84 catches. Teams that gave Davis a cushion last season got eaten up 5 to 10 yards per quick pass. Teams that tried to press were often burned for touchdowns. Auburn depth at the slot took blows with both Will Hastings and Eli Stove having knee injuries and surgeries last spring. Both did a ton of damage last year. Auburn has moved running back Devan Barrett to the slot for depth. Barrett has good hands and is a good runner, but he’s not the breakaway threat the guys above him are. Auburn’s tight end is senior Jalen Harris. Teams can key on him as a blocker only. I think Auburn has targeted Harris maybe 3 times in his 3 years as a starter. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham had a slow start and a propensity to take hits last season but heated up by about game 4 and lit up some SEC secondaries. He’s mobile in the pocket and can make every throw. UT has veterans at safety, and returns a lot of tackles. Junior Nigel Warrior and senior Micah Abernathy were the leading tacklers on the Volunteer squad last season. They will get help from junior nickel back Baylen Buchannan. Advantage: Auburn.
I’m not expecting this game to be much trouble for Auburn. Tennessee will be struggling, and Auburn will be hitting typical mid-season form with a very talented team. Having UT at home will only be a bigger help. Auburn has not lost at home against Tennessee since 1998, and even that struggling Auburn team took the eventual national champions to the wire in a 17–9 loss.
Prediction: Auburn cruises over an outmanned UT team, 47–7.