Welcome to our new Monday feature, the mailbag. Every weekend, we'll be soliciting your questions from the Saturday games: injuries, coaching decisions, bad drinking decisions, etc. This week, we're answering your burning off-season questions as we count down the days until football time in Tennessee.
Q: What will the depth chart look like for week one?
Here is the projected depth chart for the starting offense against Utah State:
There are two interesting developments: first, the return of Pig Howard and an unexpectedly strong showing from sophomore Josh Smith have bumped five star freshman Josh Malone onto the second (and occasionally third) string units. Malone, an early enrollee, looks like he may have hit a bit of a wall with regard to his game preparation and practice habits. The Vols are likely to open up against Utah State with Marquez North, Von Pearson, and Pig Howard in the slot.
Second, along the offensive line, early enrollee Coleman Thomas is now working with the second string after spending the offseason penciled in as the starting right tackle. Redshirt junior Kyler Kerbyson has shifted from right guard to right tackle, with freshman Jashon Robertson moving from defensive tackle to right guard.
Really, what you're looking at here is the domino effect from JUCO offensive tackle Dontavious Blair's failure to win the left tackle position. Blair enrolled early, but came into Tennessee both underweight and out of shape, and he hasn't been able to beat out fifth year senior (and former walk-on) Jacob Gilliam. After the first few fall practices, insiders were already whispering that the Gilliam-Thomas duo might be the worst pair of starting tackles at Tennessee in years; Gilliam because of physical limitations and Thomas because of inexperience and mental mistakes. From a scheme standpoint, it's virtually impossible to protect both tackles without abandoning Bajakian's preferred offense and playing a two-tight end or I-formation max protect formation. By shifting Kerbyson from tackle to guard, the Vols give up some of Coleman's physical upside, but eliminate most of the mental mistakes. This allows a single tight end to switch ends of the formation as necessary. It also helps that Robertson has played more than serviceably in replacing Kerbyson at right guard, meaning that the Jackson-Crowder-Robertson interior line should remain solid.
And here is the projected depth chart for the starting defense:
On defense, most observers expected senior Justin Coleman to lose his starting cornerback position, and coaches quickly ended any related drama by moving him to nickelback in the spring. What is surprising, though, is his potential replacement: Tennessee track team member Michael F. Williams. As with fellow early enrollees Malone and Thomas, freshman Emmanuel Moseley held down a starting role all during the spring and summer only to be supplanted as the season approaches. With Moseley, it looks more like Williams coming on strong rather than any regression on Moseley's part as coaches have continuously praised his effort and technique work. Both Moseley and Williams are among the fastest players on the team, so let's hope this works out better than the last walk-on in the secondary, JaRon Toney.
The second new development on the defense is both encouraging and puzzling: after spending the off-season talking up Curt Maggitt's new role along the defensive line, defensive coordinator Jon Jancek revealed that his third starter at linebacker (along with AJ Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin) would be... Maggitt or JUCO linebacker Chris Weatherd (who plays faster without the missing E from his last name). Was it all a smokescreen? Probably not, because Jancek anticipates playing 40-50% of snaps with five defensive backs, meaning that Maggitt will slide down to rush end when Coleman comes in. It's also good that freshman defensive ends Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix have impressed in camp to the extent that Maggitt moving back to outside linebacker shouldn't completely neuter the pass rush. It also means the Vols could be playing in a hybrid 5-2 front more often than not.
Q: Which of the fall camp injuries should I be most concerned about?
Trevarris Saulsberry's knee injury is probably the biggest and yet least surprising concern. Saulsberry was on his way to becoming Tennessee's best defensive lineman last year when he injured his knee against Oregon and missed the entire season. After spending the offseason working to recover from surgery for a torn MCL, he re-injured it during fall camp. While the coaching staff remains optimistic that he'll return sometime this season,1 it's beginning to seem like the football gods are conspiring against him.
'Half Linebacker, Half Amazing' Curt2 Maggitt tweaked his ankle during fall practice and was held out of drills for a few days, but after missing a season and change due to a nasty knee injury suffered in 2012, it will take more than a minor sprain to keep Maggitt out of the lineup. Expect him to take the field, dominate, and then return to Castle Greyskull where he will prepare for the eternal battle against his arch enemy.
Q: Will it matter that we're breaking in a nearly all-new offensive line against a good, but mid-major, defense?
Maybe. Utah State had a great defense in 2013, finishing 8th overall in Defensive F+,3 but the minor league Aggies are replacing six defensive starters, including two of three down linemen and three of the four members of a ball-hawking secondary.4 Utah State schemes to take away the run first and force teams into a one dimensional attack, using a stout three man line (two defensive ends and a noseguard) along with up to two rush linebackers to create pressure on the quarterback and swallow up running plays, while playing with a single high safety on the back end.5 This year's defensive line returns only a single starter in senior end BJ Larson, but plenty of experience remains with veteran upperclassmen Elvis Kamana-Matagi (NG) and Jordan Nielson (DE).6
In order to be successful, Tennessee's offensive line must stay on schedule and avoid negative plays. If the Vols can pick up consistent yardage and keep drives alive, the offensive line should be able to eventually wear out the smaller, quicker Utah State defensive front, which has a significant size and weight disadvantage.7 Tennessee also needs a highly touted group of wide receivers and tight ends to play up to expectations. The minor league Aggies will be playing with only a single returning starter in the secondary, and the Vols will have opportunities to pick on new players in one-one coverage in the passing game. If Tennessee can score on splash play opportunities, Utah State will have to back off the defensive line and the Vols will avoid facing one of the nation's stingiest red zone defenses.
Q: So they say DGB is ineligible, does that mean we win the game?
From a PR standpoint, it's probably worse that the NCAA managed to kind of sort of get one right and deny immediate eligibility to alleged domestic violence perpetrator Dorial Green Beckham, mainly because I had to throw out all of the jokes I was busy writing about him, and so now I have to actually "watch film" and "talk about football" which is a total drag.
From a football perspective, it absolutely does make the game easier for the Vols, as the rest of the Oklahoma wide receivers are about as appetizing as a feast of hot garbage. That doesn't mean that Tennessee will win the game, but taking away the other team's best deep threat should make it harder for redshirt sophomore and Hype All-American8 quarterback Trevor Knight.
Q: Is it possible to go back in time and not do all those shots that have me in a fetal position eating saltines right now?
No, but I applaud your dedication and offseason preparation for another wonderful Tennessee football season. Here's hoping for a bowl game, because my liver can't take much more losing...
2. Also known as "Chris". In Red Cup Rebellion's defense, it's probably too much to expect anyone from the University of Mississippi to know an African-American man's name. Oh, that's all behind them now? Good to know.↩
5. For example, check out the defensive lineup at 00:06 of the 2013 Utah State-USC game: three defensive linemen (DE, NG, DE) with two linebackers standing up on the line of scrimmage, two coverage linebackers, two corners playing man, and a single high safety (the other safety, reading run, sneaks down into the box before the snap, giving the Aggies a 5-3 look).↩
6. Wow, the Utah media seems to be confident about this game. The Deseret News has a Breakdown of the Utah State Defensive Line, while the Salt Lake City Tribune has coverage of the minor league Aggies' New Defensive Line Coach (their old coach will also see Tennessee this year, as he's the new defensive line coach for Vanderbilt).↩
7. The smallest projected starter on the Tennessee offensive line, Mack Crowder, outweighs the heaviest defensive end on the Utah State roster, and is only a few Big Macs away from outweighing the heaviest defensive tackle. Bill Connelly's Tennessee Preview.↩
8. Hype All-American (TM) earned for defeating a Nick Saban team in a meaningless bowl game (aka any Crimson Tide bowl game that isn't a national title game) that MEANT THEM BOYS WEREN'T TRYIN TO DO NOTHIN THEY KNOW WHAT THEY DONE ALREADY. SHOULDA DIED OF SHAME LOSIN TO THEM NO ACCOUNT SHEEP LOVIN BARNERS. SECOND PLACE IN THE YELLAHAMMER STATE IS NO PLACE TO BE, PAWWWWWWL!↩