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We answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.
“What’s up with Todd Kelly only being listed as 3rd string safety? I thought he’d be starting easy this year.” – Dawson
Nathanael: I never thought he’d start, but I thought he would at least be the second string safety. I’m surprised he’s third string, but not completely shocked at all. He’s coming off injury and a somewhat dramatic offseason if you remember the headlines from several months ago. Not only that, but UT has some very talented younger guys at safety like Trevon Flowers, Theo Jackson, and now Shawn Shamburger too. It’s not a complete shock, but it’s a tad bit surprising to see TK at third string.
Ben: Like Nathanael, I never though TK Jr. would start. Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy are better safeties as it stands today, in large part because Kelly Jr. can’t stay healthy. That’s the main reason he’s third on the depth chart. It’s also important to remember that depth charts presented on the Monday of game week mean very little. They’re filled out with little thought put behind them solely to please the media. I’m not saying that Kelly Jr. isn’t third on the depth chart at this point; I just would be surprised if he doesn’t receive meaningful snaps at some point this season.
“Can the VOLS score 34, and if so is that enough to beat WVU?” – Jason
Nathanael: I think the Vols will have to score in the 30s to beat West Virginia, yes. We’ve seen in the past that, for the most part, when SEC teams play some of this potent offenses like what West Virginia implements, they have to score quite a few points themselves to win. Since 2010, the SEC has gone 20-13 against the Big 12 and has averaged just over 30 points per contest in those 33 games. Tennessee isn’t going to be able to just grind out a win and run the ball 75 times this game. I do think UT will try to play ball control as much as they can, but they also have to test WVU’s secondary because their corners are thin and somewhat unproven. I think 34 would be right at the bare minimum of amount of points the Vols need to score to win. I would feel more comfortable saying somewhere in the 38-42 point range.
Ben: I honestly have no idea if Tennessee can score 34 points. There is so much newness on the offensive side of the ball. Jarrett Guarantano is somewhat of a new starting quarterback, new group of running backs, new tight ends, Josh Palmer will be one of the go-to guys, a large portion of the starting offensive line is new, and most importantly, there is a new coaching staff. Folks are down on Guarantano because of his play last season, but the redshirt sophomore wasn’t in a legitimate offensive system last season under Butch Jones and Larry Scott. Under Tyson Helton, he will be. So, I lean towards Tennessee being able to score 28 to 31 points against the Mountaineers. But what if Guarantano plays the way many thought he would coming out of high school? Pair that with solid offensive line play and a nice running game, and I think Tennessee could score 35 points. Which is what they’ll need to beat West Virginia.
“We know they can score. Can we?” – Dewey
Nathanael: This builds off the last question some, and we had a couple different questions this week asking essentially the same thing. How does Tennessee put up their points against WVU, and can they keep pace? Is UT’s offense capable of scoring 30 or more points against Power Five teams this year?
I think yes, they are. It’s hard to judge this West Virginia defense off last year since they’ve changed so much of their personnel from last season, but if you look back to last year and when UT was healthiest at the start of the season against Georgia Tech, then I think that should give you some hope. Tennessee put up 42 points in double overtime against the Yellow Jackets, and Georgia Tech had a much better overall defense last year than West Virginia did. Like I said, it’s hard to say WVU’s defense this year is going to be anything like last year’s defense, but the Vols were able to be potent with a much less effective offense and offensive scheme last year against a better defense in their season opener. But, as I said, Tennessee’s offense last year was completely different than what it will look like this year both from a personnel standpoint and from a play-calling standpoint. But I do think UT will be able to score several touchdowns against the Mountaineers.
Ben: Based off my last answer to the previous question, I do think Tennessee will be able to score against West Virginia. To do so, the Vols are going to have to run the ball. Against the Mountaineers’ 3-3-5 defense, I believe the opportunity is there for Tennessee to run the ball successfully. West Virginia allowed 204.2 rushing yards per game last season, the most of any Big 12 team. With Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy up front, there’s no reason Tennessee shouldn’t be able to run the ball successfully against an undersized West Virginia front-seven. Doing so will set up the passing game and allow Guarantano to push the ball downfield.
“Does UT, in fact, have a better passing attack than WV? The receiving core and arm talent of QBs combined with having an Oline for the first time in 10 years seems to indicate.” – @pizzamon1
Nathanael: Absolutely not. UT’s passing attack may be improved from last year, but West Virginia has one of the best passing offenses in the entire country. The Vols are still very, very far behind them in that regard.
Ben: Simply put, no. I firmly believe you won’t find a better wide receiver room in the country than in Morgantown, West Virginia. David Sills is a match-up nightmare in the red zone, Gary Jennings is an Anquan Boldin-type who catches everything, and Marcus Simms is an electric slot receiver who can also play outside. And when those three need a break, West Virginia can turn to Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons, 5-foot-7 speedster Tevin Bush, or 6-foot-5 Dominique Maiden. Pair those six with a potential Heisman winner in Will Grier who will be playing behind a solid offensive line, and you have yourself a potent passing attack. Tennessee will have its hands full on Saturday.
“How do you think the Vols defense will do against Grier?” – @The_Klassens
Nathanael: I honestly have no idea how they’ll do, but my gut says it won’t be very pretty. Tennessee’s defense may be improved quite a bit from last year, but unfortunately I think UT’s defensive weaknesses are playing directly into WVU’s offensive strengths. I also have questions about how good Tennessee’s pass rushing will be this year and the depth on the defensive line in general. I think we’re going to see a fairly high scoring game even if the Vols are successful in their ball control plan on offense.
Ben: Three months ago, I would have told you Tennessee didn’t stand a chance against West Virginia’s offense. Three days before game day, and I think the Vols will fare well against him. Under Pruitt, Tennessee is going to be a physical football team that is going to punch opposing teams in the mouth. Because of that, I don’t think you’ll see the Vols back down this weekend. It starts up front with the defensive line. They have to get pressure on the quarterback, and I believe they will. This will relieve some of the pressure freshmen corners Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson will be dealing with as they attempt to contain West Virginia’s receivers.
But the main reason I believe Tennessee’s defense will be successful is because I believe in Pruitt’s ability as a coach. He’s one of the best defensive minds in the country, and I think that will show on Saturday regardless of who’s on the field.