Road Trip to Rocky Top.
Can the Vol passing game recover?
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. On November 9, the Tigers play the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium, in Knoxville. Through much of Auburn’s history, Knoxville has been a tough place to win. However, in the past ten years, Auburn has dominated there. In 2004, Auburn blew out to a 31-3 halftime lead, and coasted to a 34-10 win. In 2009, Gene Chizik’s first Auburn team built a 23-6 fourth quarter lead before allowing a comeback that fell short, 26-22. This year the Vols hope to rebound from a disastrous five year stint that included seven losses in four of five seasons. New coach Butch Jones hopes to right the ship this year, but there is a lot of work yet to be done.
Tennessee has a pretty top-heavy schedule, with five games against potential top 10 opponents, and three of those are on the road. Conspicuously missing are games against middle of the road teams, with most of the rest of the Vol. schedule consisting of cupcakes or lower-echelon SEC teams based on last year’s records. The Vols could return to the post season this year, but it will take a near perfect tap dance through the seven winnable games. The Vols open with Austin Peay, then Western Kentucky. Those should be wins, however with Bobby Petrino calling plays for WKU, this could be a trap game for the shaky Vol secondary. Then goes on the road to Oregon, then Florida, before returning home for a breather against South Alabama. A home date against Georgia is followed by an off week. The Vols then host South Carolina, and then a trip to Tuscaloosa to play the Tide. November is somewhat kinder to the Vols, with a road trip to Missouri, a home date against Auburn, then another off week. Tennessee finishes up with traditional closers Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
New Tennessee coach Butch Jones has brought renewed optimism to Knoxville, with a crowd of over 61,000 showing up for the Orange and White spring game. They were treated to D. J.s and tunes, and a party atmosphere. They also were subjected to one of those byzantine “offense vs. defense” scoring systems that is pretty inscrutable to the fan in the stands. I’m glad Coach Malzhan junked that business at Auburn’s A-Day.
Coach Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian will likely run some variant of a one-back offense rooted in the old systems pioneered by Joe Tiller at Purdue. With a good offensive line and capable running backs, I’d expect to see some heavier sets at times. If Tennessee tries to be run-heavy in the SEC with no lead blockers, it will go about as well as Scot Loeffler’s tenure did at Auburn. Quarterbacks were inconsitent and frequently off target in the spring game. Some of this was due to an extremely youthful receiving corps that made numerous route errors and had dropped balls. Neither starting quarterback candidate hit 50 percent of his passes, and that job might well end up falling to an incoming true freshman. Considering that Butch Jones quarterbacks have to make a lot of reads, this could be a recipe for disaster.
Defensively, Tennessee was the worst team in the league last year, giving up 35.7 points per game and over 471 yards. A one year experiment with the 3-4 defense ends, and the Vols will go back to the 4-3, where a solid front seven should be able to play the run decently. Tennessee gave up a lot of big plays in the running game last season, but a lot of that was due to being misaligned in the 3-4. Where the Vols had worse trouble last season was generating pressure on the passer, with only 17 sacks. With 9 sacks in a short spring game this year, there is hope that the Vols will improve, but it was two-hand touch on some very young, hold-the-ball quarterbacks. The Vol secondary was often victimized last season, but should be better this year with every starter returning.
Tennessee returns underwhelming special teams from a year ago, and their electric return man Cordarrelle Patterson has moved on to their NFL. The Vols do have senior do-everything kicker/punter Michael Palardy back. If the spring game is any indication, he has improved his leg strength. He hit a 52-yard field goal during that game.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Tennessee offensive line: Auburn will likely go with a tackle rotation of Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeffery Whitaker. Dee Ford, Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae will be the primary ends. The Tigers have depth beyond those six guys, but none except Ford have distinguished themselves, either. Tennessee’s returning offensive line is big and strong, and features 124 career starts. Senior James Stone will start at center, with seniors Alex Bullard and Zach Fulton at the guards. Tackles are senior Ja’Wuan James and junior Antonio Richardson. There is depth beyond those guys. Advantage: Tennessee.
Auburn linebackers vs. Tennessee backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are sophomores Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Neither has a huge amount of game experience, and it’s a concern going into the season. Senior runner Rajion Neal gives the Vols a good inside runner, with junior Marlin Lane providing a speedy option on the edge. And Lane was suspended for the spring game, although word is that he should be back in good graces by the time the season starts. On the goal line last season, Tennessee often used big 240-pound linebacker A. J. Johnson. It will be interesting to see if that continues. Johnson scored 6 touchdowns last season, the most by any Vol on the ground. Beyond those three guys, no one else returning in the backfield has ever had a college carry. The Vols will need to develop some depth over the summer. Advantage: Tennessee.
Auburn corners vs. Tennessee receivers: Auburn is surprisingly deep at corner, and should get good play from starters Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy. Both are also physical corners, not afraid to come up in run support and lay a hit. Tennessee lost Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers from last season’s electric receiving corps. The Vols will be very young at the receiver positions next fall, and judging from the spring game, they have a long way to go here. Penciled in as starters at this time are redshirt freshman Jason Croom and sophomore Cody Blanc. Blanc had the offensive play of the spring game, taking a short crossing pattern 58 yards to the house, outracing the defense. Blanc’s backup, junior Vincent Davis also caught a 48 yarder. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Tennessee secondary receivers and quarterback: I’m lumping “star” Justin Garrett in with the safeties, because I’ve done that in earlier previews, and Tennessee will run mostly a one back offense. This may be another game where one will see both stars on the field, Garrett and Robensen Therezie. Both have the speed to stay with wide receivers, and Therezie does have a cornerback background. Junior free safety Jermaine Whitehead has really come on this spring, so the real question is who will play strong safety. Right now, converted corner Joshua Holsey is atop the Auburn depth chart there, but senior Demetruce McNeal will return this fall and likely make a serious run. For the Vols, junior tight end Brendan Downs has a bit of experience, and sophomore slot receiver Alton Howard had 13 catches last season, but for only 54 total yards. Out of the backfield, Rajion Neal caught 19 balls, and Marlon Lane caught 29, so both guys could be a factor in the screen game. After the Tennessee spring game, most observers give junior quarterback Justin Worley a slight lead over redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman. However, Worley is not terribly mobile, something that is a key element of Butch Jones’ offenses in the past. Auburn has the athleticism at safety to stay with Tennesse, and an experience edge. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn returns senior punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Clark had 70 punts for a 39.8 yard average, but only 5 were returned, for a total of 4 yards. Tennessee senior Michael Palardy hit 36 punts last season for a 43.1 yard average, but was relieved in certain situations by junior Matt Darr, who had 16 punts for a 39 yard average, mostly on pooch punt attempts. The Vols gave up 8.3 yards on per return on 16 returns. Experienced Tennessee junior Devrin Young (9.7 yards per return) is back to return punts, but right now he’s supplanted on the depth chart by sophomore Alton Howard. Auburn counters with veteran Quan Bray, who averaged 8.5 yards per return. Slight Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn didn’t score enough to generate many kickoffs in 2012, but when they did, Cody Parkey nailed 33 of 48 of them for touchbacks. Tennessee’s Michael Palardy only generated 25 touchbacks on 76 kickoffs. When Parkey wasn’t putting the kickoff out of the field of play, Auburn gave up only 16.6 yards per return. Tennessee gave up 20.6. Auburn and Tennessee both lose their leading return man to graduation. (Onterrio McCalebb and Cordarrelle Patterson, respectively.) As a team, Tennessee averaged 20.5 yards per return, and Auburn averaged 22.4.
Place kicking: Auburn’s Cody Parkey was 11 of 14 on field goal attempts, and perfect on his extra points last season. Michael Palardy was 9 of 12 on field goals, but missed three extra points. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Tennessee defensive line: Auburn’s starting A-Day unit of sophomore Greg Robinson, redshirt freshman Alex Kozan, junior Reese Dismukes, junior Chad Slade, and sophomore Patrick Miller looked dominant. In addition, the 2nd line did well against the starting D-line. By all accounts, Avery Young, who started three games at right tackle last season, is having a monster summer. He may fit into the lineup somewhere this fall. Everything on the Vol defensive line starts with big 351 pound senior tackle Daniel McCullars. The matchup between him and Reese Dismukes might determine how much Auburn is able to do on offense. On the other hand, many teams last year read McCullars, and left him unblocked. A 350 pound guy isn’t going to catch many SEC runners, or even quarterbacks. Tennessee will hope that fellow senior tackle Daniel Hood helps out in the middle. He’s a lighter, quick sort of tackle, a good counterbalance for McCullars’ bulk. Senior Maurice Couch is more or less a co-starter at tackle, as well. All eyes are on the defensive ends, who have to step up on the pass rush. Senior Jacques Smith has played both end and outside linebacker in the 3-4, and has some speed, although he’s only around 240 pounds. Junior Marlon Walls is more of your big-body 3-4 end, a staunch run defender, but not a guy who’ll turn the corner on the pass rush. Tennessee will look for pass rush help from some very young prospects. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Tennessee linebackers: Auburn finished spring with a trio of dangerous running backs, and more are on the way this fall in the incoming class. Junior Tre Mason is a 1000 yard incumbent, JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne wowed the A-Day crowd with his power and agility, and junior Corey Grant is a threat on the outside. In addition, the Tigers will have bruising senior H-back Jay Prosch paving the way. Tennessee returns senior middle linebacker A. J. Johnson, who had 100 tackles last season. He’s joined by senior Brent Brewer, and junior Curt Maggett. These guys were pretty good run stoppers a year ago, and more suspect in space. A year of seasoning and a more traditional scheme will help. For the Vols, though, Auburn has worrisome speed on the edge. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Tennessee corners: Auburn’s starters on the outside post-spring are juniors Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed, neither of who have done much previously on the field. Backups Sammie Coates and Ricardo Lewis should add an explosive dimension when they sub in. Junior Tevin Mitchell is the best of the Tennessee corners returning. Junior corners Riyahd Jones and Justin Coleman are the current starters for Tennessee. Coleman had only 3 passes defended last season, all breakups. Jones is a JUCO transfer brought in to help shore up a leaky pass defense. He is a taller, athletic corner, who the Vols hope matches up with Auburn’s bigger receivers. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Tennessee safeties: Auburn has some matchup nightmares as secondary receivers, starting with C. J. Uzomah and Quan Bray. Few safeties can keep up with either in a foot race. If a team puts extra corners in to shut that down, Auburn will run over them. Put in beefier safeties, and those guys will be wide open. The real question is who’ll pull the trigger for the Auburn offense. The QB competition is said to be neck and neck between junior Khiel Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. Neither distinguished himself on A-Day. The race will become four-headed for a while when the newcomers arrive this fall. Tennessee returns a pair of sophomore starters at safety, LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph. As freshmen last season, the pair were victimized often. Despite Tennessee giving up lots of point and yards, these two only combined for 3 pass breakups and 80 tackles. They will have to do a lot better job of getting into position this year, if the Vol pass defense is to significantly improve. Advantage: Auburn.
Some folks feel that this game will be Auburn last realistic chance for a win in 2013, with Georgia and Alabama looming later. On paper, this is a very winnable matchup, unless Auburn still has major quarterback problems in November. However, this game is in hostile Neyland Stadium. Fortunately, this Auburn team will have already played in Baton Rouge, and College Station.
My guess is that by the second week of December, the Auburn offense will be humming along. Tennessee’s defense will be better in 2013, but there are a number of matchup problems with Auburn’s skill folks. Tennessee’s offense will be interesting to watch. Right now, I don’t think Butch Jones has the experience and personnel to run the one-back things he likes. And he doesn’t have the beef to line up and go power, either. Much like it was when Jones took over for Brian Kelly at Cincinatti, I think he’ll struggle for a year or two till he gets the players to run his system.
Prediction: An Auburn team rapidly gaining confidence takes care of business in Knoxville, winning 31-17.