Offensively, South Carolina (3-5, 1-5 SEC) hasn’t been particularly scary this year – currently sitting in the bottom three of the SEC in total yardage, points and passing.
But if Tennessee needs a wake-up call in practice this week, the Vols can simply be reminded of two numbers from the 2014 matchup against South Carolina: 286 and four. That’s how many total yards and touchdowns do-it-all receiver Pharoh Cooper accounted for in UT’s 45-42 overtime win in Columbia last season. Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and the offense bailed the team out with a heroic come-from-behind effort that forced overtime and eventually led to a win in that game.
There’s no way around it, though: UT’s defense got burned by Cooper, who currently sits at third in the SEC this year with 609 yards and four touchdowns on 44 receptions.
“Yeah, oh yeah – we talked about it,” said defensive coordinator John Jancek, who saw his defense give up 625 yards of total offense in that game.”The things that are really good about him is that he’s got great quickness. He’s just a competitive football player, he’s a good football player. That’s just the best way to describe it. He’s got a good skill set, but I think what puts him at a very high level is really his competitive nature.”
You can add versatility to what makes him dangerous as well. That was on full display last year when he completed the rare trifecta of throwing, running and receiving at least one touchdown in the game against the Vols. The former high school quarterback is a threat to line up in the wildcat at any point and can certainly throw or run out of that as UT found out. And while 53 of his yards and two touchdowns last year came from that formation, he did most of his damage at receiver, piling up 233 yards and 11 catches against what had been an improved secondary for the Vols in 2014.
Tennessee never made the proper adjustments in that game to limit Cooper.
Armed with one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC in 2015 in Cam Sutton, the Vols will have the option to have Sutton shadow him. South Carolina’s next leading wide receiver is D.J. Neal, who has just six catches for 78 yards on the season. No other receiver outside of Cooper has scored a touchdown this season. Don’t expect UT’s coaches to tip their hand on the defensive plan, but whether they shadow Cooper with Sutton or just shift extra coverage to him, regardless the Vols must make stopping him priority No. 1 on Saturday.
“We all know what Pharoh Cooper brings to the table,” Butch Jones said earlier this week. “He is one of the most explosive and dynamic players – not only in our conference but in the country.”
The Vols saw that first-hand last year. They hope to remember that lesson this year.