Tennessee’s season-opening victory against Bowling Green, a winless team in 2020, raised more questions than answers on the offensive side of the ball:
Who is the best quarterback to run Josh Heupel’s offense?
Can Tennessee cash in on open shots down the field?
Do the Volunteers have the requisite offensive line depth to hold up through SEC play?
Saturday’s 41-34 loss to Pittsburgh (2-0) in Neyland revealed that Tennessee (1-1) has some offensive juice. Hendon Hooker completed 15 of 21 passes for 188 yards, two touchdowns and a pick after Joe Milton went down with an injury. Tennessee tight ends Jacob Warren and Princeton Fant burst onto the scene, combining for 102 yards and a touchdown after the wide receivers struggled to secure catchable balls last week. The Volunteer attack was aided by the special teams numerous times, such as when Christian Charles blocked a punt on Pitt’s first drive, giving Milton the ball back 2-yards from the end zone.
However, the Pitt loss only raised more questions, this time about a Tennessee defense that ceded 397 yards. The Volunteer defenders proved incapable of lifting Tennessee to victory against their first Power Five opponent of the season, but they have two weeks and a home matchup with Tennessee Tech to find answers on defense before they travel to Gainesville to take on Florida.
Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks will be tasked with improving Tennessee’s defensive consistency, which starts with his ability to make in-game adjustments when offenses find successful strategies to move the ball.
His defense seized momentum early against Pitt, forcing three straight three and outs that allowed the offense to build a 10-0 lead despite some miscues in the passing game.
“I thought they played with great effort, great strain, defeated blocks, a bunch of perimeters screen game early, squashed the run game early,” Heupel said at Monday’s media availability.
However, hampered by a Milton fumble that gave Pitt short field, the defense surrendered two passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown and two field goals in the second quarter.
“A couple of the drives that they gave up, there’s third and long situations where you’ve got an opportunity to get off the field. You have them on third and goal on the 10, and the quarterback escapes the pocket,” Heupel said. “Coverage was really good early. You’ve got to match them, but it’s hard to cover guys for six, seven seconds when the quarterback breaks contain. So, you’ve got to push the pocket, but you’ve got to also contain it.”
Tennessee’s offense gave up an interception and two fumbles to Pitt, but the defense was unable to force any interceptions or fumbles against a Kenny Pickett-led offense. Quarterbacks can be pressured into throwing interceptions if opposing pass rushers can break into the backfield, but Pickett extended plays by evading Tennessee’s pass rush with his feet. Pitt sacked Milton and Hooker a combined five times, two of which resulted in fumbles, while Tennessee got to Pickett just twice.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to continue to get hands on balls. You’ve got to do a great job pushing the pocket and make the quarterback uncomfortable back there, make him force the ball,” Heupel said. “We’ve gotten our hands on a couple, but haven’t come down with them. You’ve just got to compete and play hard. Eventually, those things start coming your way.”
Heupel said players practice creating turnovers in practice by catching balls with the Jugs machine. Other drills likely include elements designed to teach players both tricks to force fumbles at the point of contact and how to recover a fumble.
“Defensively, we emphasize (forcing turnovers). It’s how we start every practice,” Heupel said on Saturday. “We come out and any skill guy defensively is catching balls pre-practice and post-practice so that when you have an opportunity to get your hands on it and make a play, we’ve done everything that we could. Yes, we’ve been disappointed that we haven’t been able to create a game-changing play on that side of it. I don’t think it’s lack of effort or our practice, we just haven’t made the ball bounce the right way.”
Though he failed to sack Pickett, Tyler Baron showed the potential to become a dominant power rusher for Tennessee by breaking into the backfield for two and a half tackles for loss. Matthew Butler can tear up passing pockets to provide pressure from the interior.
“Interior has been really consistent. As a head coach, the leadership (Butler) brings to our football program is really important,” Heupel said. “The ability to jump the football and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage, play on an edge, push the pocket in the pass game, disrupt things in the run game, (it) continues to get better. Anticipate that from him as we go through the year too.”
Byron Young, who was ruled ineligible for his first two college games, will enter the pass rusher rotation weighing over 25 pounds more than he did when he came to Tennessee in January, according to Heupel.
“Through training camp, through spring ball, (Young) has been really good as a pass rusher off the edge,” Heupel said. “I think he’s going to add some things we need on that side of the football.”
Edited by Ryan Sylvia