The Blueprint: How Tennessee Can Beat Alabama

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    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 Alabama is on offense

    Under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the Crimson Tide has seen major improvements in their offense. Alabama ranks 14th in the nation in total offense with 2,939 total yards, averaging 44.8 points per game. With this being his third year at Alabama, the Tide has added two more SEC championships and a national title. There’s no doubt that Kiffin is one of the best offensive minds out there. Match that up with just being at Alabama under Nick Saban and you have a deadly combination.

    Kiffin likes to run a pro-style, balanced offense. It’s a philosophy that’s based entirely around the quarterback. The emphasis is on situations and game-planning instead of relying on core plays and execution.

    The inside zone run is Alabama’s base run play. The inside zone is basically used to create double teams to combat a defensive front. Because of Alabama’s size on the offensive line, the inside zone is a perfect fit. Every offensive lineman determines whether they are covered or uncovered. At the snap, every lineman takes an aggressive half step play side. A covered offensive lineman punches to the play side shoulder of the defensive lineman. Once the uncovered lineman’s block is established, one of the two linemen will come off to block the nearest linebacker. By blocking an area rather than a man, an offense can readily adjust to a variety of blitzes and stunts.

    With Kiffin, the Tide will also run out of shotgun formations to an offset halfback. The runs are frequently packaged with the threats of screens or quick slants to Calvin Ridley. Kiffin also relies on split zone. It’s pretty much the same philosophy as the inside zone, except the tight end blocks away from the play to seal the backside man. This helps create a cut-back lane for the running back.

    The Tide’s offense also relies heavily on motion and various formations to keep the defense from playing too much on a particular side of the formation. Going back to the emphasis on situations, Kiffin might shift the offense from a one-back to a two-back formation (going from run-first to pass-first).

    Because Alabama likes to run the ball, many defenses will focus on the inside zone, which is exactly what Kiffin wants. Once the defense starts committing to the inside, that’s when he will switch to outside zone (linemen move laterally) and stretch out the defense with his dangerous receivers.

    Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has been a pleasant surprise for the Tide. He can beat a defense with his arm or legs, which is something Alabama hasn’t had in a while at that position. Hurts is averaging almost 10 carries per game (5.8 yards per carry) which is similar to what Josh Dobbs does in a game. Through the air, Hurts has thrown for 1,242 yards and nine touchdowns compared to Dobbs, who has 1,433 yards and 14 touchdowns.

    With a mobile quarterback, expect Kiffin to implement some rollout designs. Bob Shoop may have to place a spy at times on Hurts to keep him from busting out a big play on the ground if the defensive line disrupts the original play. Also, look for Hurts to throw some deep balls Ridley’s way a time or two. The two have hooked up for four touchdowns already this year.

    Once again, Alabama is stacked with running backs. Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs, and Bo Scarbrough are the main three that Kiffin likes to utilize. Harris is the starter and is averaging 8.5 yards per carry. Freshman Joshua Jacobs has been splitting carries with Harris and averages 8.3 yards per carry. Scarbrough is the power back and has four touchdowns through six games. No question about it, this will be Tennessee’s toughest test of the year. The running backs are bruisers, but they’re not the fastest. Shoop may try his best to force the backs to run more to the outside instead of inside where they are so dominant.

    Alabama’s receivers are impressive as well. They have explosive playmakers in Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, (tight end) O.J. Howard, Robert Foster, Trevon Diggs, and Cam Sims. Ridley has already drawn Antonio Brown comparisons in terms of his speed and ability. He is averaging almost 10 targets per game and has reeled in four touchdowns this year. Stewart is a dangerous target as well opposite Ridley. Bowling Green transfer Gehrig Dieter is also another solid receiver for the Tide. In last year’s contest between UT and Bowling Green, Dieter exposed the Vols on defense by recording 133 yards through the air on just seven catches.

    Howard is the highest-rated tight end in most NFL mock drafts, and for good reason. He’s got great size (6-6, 251) and is averaging 14.3 yards per catch. In addition to his size and ability, he’s also a solid blocker and has deceptive speed for a tight end. Look for him to be in on some key blocks on Derek Barnett’s side. That being said, Barnett will be double teamed on some plays by left tackle Cam Robinson and Howard, so he will need to work in some stunts and leverage to blow up the coverage.

    The offensive line is yet another one full of size, strength and talent. Robinson (6-6, 326) is a projected top five pick in the 2017 draft.  The line is also lead by senior right guard Alphonse Taylor. Tennessee’s defensive line will definitely have its work cut out. The size advantage goes to Alabama, but Tennessee may be able to claim a talent and ability advantage. In last year’s contest, the Vols were able to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback and ended up sacking Jake Coker five times. With fast and athletic defensive ends like Barnett and Vereen, it should help contain Hurts. Tennessee also boasts size and strength on the interior line with players like Shy Tuttle, Kahlil McKenzie and Kendal Vickers.

    Expect the UT defense to create numerous pressured situations for the Tide offense. If the defensive line can cause frequent disruptions against a freshman quarterback in a hostile environment, then Tennessee has a decent shot to win the game.

    When Alabama is on defense

    Nick Saban had to make a big change on the defense over the offseason after Kirby Smart left to take the Georgia head coaching job. What did Saban do? He hired former Florida State and Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Even with the changes, the Crimson Tide defense is currently ranked 24th in the country. They have allowed an average of 15.8 points per game. In addition, they are the nation’s best defense against the rush, allowing an average of 69 yards per game.

    Since Pruitt has arrived, Alabama’s defense has looked different than it did under Kirby Smart. Now, the Tide runs unique formations meant to confuse offenses. Pruitt has implemented a 3-4 defense mixed with elements of the 4-3. In this defense, the linemen usually line up over the outside shoulders of the offensive line. Another unique look they have is placing a hybrid linebacker or Jack (Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson) to act as a linebacker/defeJoshua Dobbs-1-3nsive end.

    Saban and Pruitt’s defense places an emphasis on stopping the run, which has been evident. Dobbs isn’t known as a great passer, so the Tide defense will try to stop the run game and make Dobbs beat them through the air. With the addition of a Jack, this should help contain Dobbs on the ground and force him to throw. Expect Hurd and Kamara to pick up some key blocks against Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson in the backfield to help Dobbs out.

    Alabama’s defensive line is stacked once again with talent. The leader of the bunch is All-American defensive tackle Jonathan Allen (6-3, 291). He’s joined by Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Ron Payne, Da’Shawn Hand and others. This is a unit that can beat any offensive line and cause disruptions all game long. UT’s offensive line will be tested against this talented group. Right tackle Chance Hall will more than likely have the biggest challenge as he’ll be responsible for blocking the left end and the Jack linebacker who can rush the edge.

    A possible way for UT to combat this defensive line will be to mix in zone blocking in order to create some double teams, especially on the strong right side. Pulling a guard over to help out could create some running lanes for Hurd and Kamara, which was something UT was able to do successfully against Alabama last year. In an ideal game plan, it might be best for both backs to get at least equal touches.

    After last week’s performance, it might be better if Kamara ends up getting a few more touches than Hurd to help create more possibilities for explosive plays. The mix of power (Hurd) and speed (Kamara) could be just what the Vols need to beat the Alabama defense.

    The Tide linebacker corps is another strength. The leader of the defense is Jack linebacker Tim Williams. He is another projected first round pick and a playmaker at all times. Williams is joined with Reuben Foster, Shaun Hamilton, and Ryan Anderson (also plays Jack). This is a unit that can run the gaps and blitz, but also cover out in space.

    The secondary has plenty of talent as well. Senior safety Eddie Jackson is another great playmaker. He can blitz and play in space very well. He’s joined by Minkah Fitzpatrick who plays the Star position (nickelback), but can move around to different spots in the secondary. Last week against Arkansas, Fitzpatrick recorded three interceptions including a 100-yard pick six. The corners are also solid.

    UT’s passing attack will definitely be tested against this strong secondary. Dobbs will need to read his assignments and make his checks accurately. Against a very good Florida secondary, Dobbs was able to exploit their weaknesses. If Tennessee wants to win, it will need Dobbs to step up in the passing game and make some splash plays just like he did against the Gators.

    Special Teams

    Alabama’s special teams is another solid unit, but it’s not necessarily one that has big numbers. In terms of kickoff returns, they are not even listed as a top 50 unit. The kickoff and punt returner is primarily Xavian Marks, who is averaging 17.6 yards off punts and 21 yards on kickoffs. He can be explosive at times, but the coverage isn’t always that great. This is an area that Tennessee specializes in and they will need to in order to help win the game.