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The Blueprint: How Tennessee Can Beat A&M

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

Our “blueprint” takes a deeper look at UT’s upcoming matchup, and focuses on what UT needs to do to win the game. It’s not necessarily indicative of how we expect the game to go.

When A&M is on offense

The Aggies’ offense is ranked 10th in the nation, averaging 521 yards per game with a very balanced attack (1,312 passing, 1,293 rushing on the season). With offensive questions after last year, Kevin Sumlin decided to bring in former UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to the same position in College Station.

Mazzone’s offense is named the “N-Zone” and is fairly simple: Be fast, create space, be balanced, and attack the field. The offense is up-tempo and requires limited communication. This philosophy is a “conceptual offense” which limits verbiage, focuses on concepts, and shift play calls to single words, numbers, or even Kermit the Frog signs. Even though A&M’s offense looks tricky, it’s really not.

Mazzone only has about 18-20 concepts to choose from instead of other offenses that use hundreds. After UCLA’s win over Texas in 2014, Mazzone admitted that he “ran the same four plays the entire second half.” Tennessee very well could face the same inside-zone run four or five times in a row from various formations to confuse the defense. His offense is predicated on on rhythm so he likes to run quick outs, slants/flats, curls, seams, exotic RPOs (run-pass options), and unique packages. Mazzone’s offense plays fast, and on average, snaps the ball within 15-18 seconds. Bob Shoop will need to have the defense ready for almost any type of look.

The majority of Mazzone’s offense is perimeter-based or box designs – getting the ball out in space quickly, RPOs, and inside-zone runs. However, he does have some dropback concepts that made him famous among Air Raid coaches, including Sumlin and Mike Leach. Many of the concepts are high-low reads, which allow the quarterback to make a pre-snap decision instead of a decision on the fly.

Oklahoma transfer quarterback Trevor Knight has been the quarterback Sumlin needed after a tumultuous season of offensive woes and transfers. Through five weeks, Knight has thrown for 1,261 yards, seven touchdowns, and three interceptions. He is also dangerous on the ground with 392 yards and six touchdowns. When Tennessee played Oklahoma in 2014, Knight made the Vols pay big time through the air and the ground. He is the perfect fit for Mazzone’s system. Bob Shoop will need to designate a spy on Knight because he can beat a defense, especially with a successful RPO or draw.

A&M’s ground game has improved tremendously under Mazzone as well. Last year under Jake Spavital, the Aggies averaged 161.1 yards per game. In five weeks under Mazzone, the Aggies are averaging 258.6 yards per game on the ground. Freshman running back Trayveon Williams has been a bright spot for an Aggie offense that has been almost non-existent on the ground in recent years. Williams has 457 yards and four touchdowns on just 54 carries. Against South Carolina last week, Williams broke off a 49-yard touchdown run to help spark the offense. He’s fast and definitely has the ability to push past Tennessee’s defense. The Aggies also have Oklahoma transfer Keith Ford as the backup. He’s rushed for 213 yards and three touchdowns.

Tennessee struggled against Georgia’s rushing attack last week, so they will need to improve in that area. The defensive line will need to attack their gaps and create movement along the interior to help confuse A&M’s offense. It’ll be a tall task, however, since Trevor Knight is a veteran quarterback and will be the most experienced one Tennessee plays all year. Watch for Shoop to place a spy on Knight and/or Williams for a majority of the game.

Kevin_Sumlin,_Head_Football_Coach,_Texas_A&M_UniverityIn addition to a dangerous quarterback and rushing attack, the Aggies also boast arguably the most talented receiving corps in the SEC. Christian Kirk, Ricky Seals-Jones, and Josh Reynolds are All-SEC picks. Kirk and Speedy Noil are arguably the two fastest players in the SEC as well. The wide receivers are a mix of speed and size that will pose matchup problems for Tennessee’s defense. Bob Shoop will have to find a way to limit guys like Reynolds (6’4’’ 195 lbs) and Seals-Jones (6’5’’ 240 lbs) and the speedsters like Kirk and Noil. Seals-Jones and Noil are both a little bit banged up, so that could limit A&M’s options, but there is still plenty of talent whether or not those two play.

UT’s secondary has had some early struggles of tracking the ball and with penalties. It seems like a foregone conclusion that there will be at least a few big plays from the Aggies. The linebackers and secondary will have to play a perfect game in order to limit and control A&M’s explosive passing attack. The Vols will most likely play from a 4-2-5 to maximize the number of defensive backs on the field while helping out the linebackers, but also look for some Cover 2 plays as well in order to help neutralize the deep threats.

This will be Bob Shoop’s greatest test to date, and possibly for the rest of the year. Playing at Kyle Field in front of 100,000-plus is a daunting task for any opponent. The Vols cannot let crowd noise disrupt their communication or psyche. The Mazzone-Shoop matchup will be very interesting to watch.

When A&M is on defense

Former Tennessee and LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis is in his second year at Texas A&M. He’s a veteran playcaller, and one of the most respected coaches in the nation. Prior to the 2015 season, A&M experienced many defensive issues, but Chavis has turned things around in a hurry.

Through five games, A&M ranks 64th nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 388.2 yards per game. The Aggies also lead the nation in tackles for loss, averaging 10 per game. Chavis’ unit also ranks 12th in scoring defense, averaging 15.4 points per game.

Chavis runs the defense mostly out of a 4-3 base. However, Vol and Tiger fans remember his infamous “Mustang” nickel packages. The Mustang package generally will start in a 3-4 then morph into a 3-2-6. They also play a nickelback and a dimeback. In the 4-3 base, the Aggies will play quarters and single-deep safety coverages.

UT likes to bunch receivers on one side (trips) and Chavis will combat spread teams like this with Cover 1 or Cover 3 (robber) coverages. In these formations, the strong safeties can play either in soft coverage or come up on the line to stop RPOs or quarterback draws. Also, the corners are aggressive and will try their best to jam the receivers at the line of scrimmage. Josh Dobbs will have to be smart with the ball and make accurate reads, or else the defense will cause a lot of confusion.

The biggest star on defense is obviously defensive end Myles Garrett. He is a first-team All-American and All-SEC candidate. He led the SEC with 12.5 sacks last year, and is projected by numerous analysts to be the top pick in the 2017 NFL draft. Garrett didn’t play last week against South Carolina, but has three sacks in four games (Barnett has four), 11 tackles, and six hurries.

The defensive line is definitely a strength for Chavis just by having Garrett. However, the rest of the line is very talented as well. Another end to watch out for is senior Daeshon Hall. UT’s offensive line will face its toughest matchup yet against A&M’s defensive line. Both ends are strong and quick, while the tackles are all 300 pounds and up.

KendrickTennessee’s offensive line will need to play their gaps almost perfectly to limit disruption. The offensive line has improved over the past few games, but they still show some weakness especially against the pass rush. Expect Garrett and Hall to stunt and twist to beat the tackles and hurry Dobbs out of the pocket.

A&M’s linebackers are the least talked about defensive unit. Senior weak linebacker Shaan Washington is the only returner. The middle and strong linebackers (Otaro Alaka, Richard Moore) are both sophomores and don’t have a ton of experience. If there’s one area Mike DeBord wants to pick on, then it’ll be the linebackers. Throwing shorts slants over the middle and running successful RPOs will help keep the linebackers honest throughout the game.

The secondary for A&M is a talented one. Free safety Armani Watts is the only Aggie to have at least one sack, tackle for loss, QB hurry, interception, pass breakup, forced fumble, and a recovered fumble. Opposite of him, strong safety Justin Evans is known for being a hard hitter and a ball-hawk (two INTs vs UCLA). Watts and Evans combined to make arguably the best safety duo in the SEC, but A&M pass defense has still been porous at times – checking in at 13th in the SEC in passing yards given up coming into this game.

DeBord will most likely need to attack the corners because the safeties will be ready for almost any play. Running RPOs, quick under routes, and draws will help keep the safeties honest and possibly help lead to a big vertical play here and there. The offense went after Florida’s best defensive backs and were successful, so DeBord may end up challenging the safeties as well.

On special teams, the Vols will need to play their assignments whether it’s field or boundary coverage. Christian Kirk is an explosive receiver as well as a returner. The Aggies average 22 yards on kickoff returns and 17 yards on punt returns. Robert Neyland’s sixth maxim states, “Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.” Tennessee will need to do just that.

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