RTI Mailbag: Vols Preparing For Pittsburgh

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    Photo via Tennessee Athletics

    Tennessee is 1-0 after a season-opening blowout win against Bowling Green. Things get geared up to another level this week when the Vols host Pittsburgh for the Johnny Majors Classic.

    The RTI team tackles your questions from the season-opening win and the pivotal week two matchup for Josh Heupel.

    How much do you think Bowling Green dropping into eight-man coverage contributed to Tennessee pounding the run game? What do you expect from Pitt in that regard?

    Ric Butler: I think that Pittsburgh undoubtedly transitioned into a defensive formation that Tennessee was not expecting. In fact, on Wednesday’s SEC Teleconference, Heupel specifically talked about that. They had to adjust during the game, and their adjustments primarily led to the run game. That being said, I also wonder how just the overall inexperience of the offense led them to stick with something that was simple and working in the run game. I expect a Pitt team that wants to win in Knoxville, so I expect a fast-moving and aggressive defense. Tennessee will need the passing game far more on Saturday than they did last Thursday.

    Ryan Schumpert: I think ideally, Heupel and his offensive staff would have liked to throw the ball more in the second half even with Bowling Green not stacking the box and dropping eight into coverage frequently. However, you’re definitely right that it affected Tennessee’s play calling. Things went awry after the first quarter for Joe Milton and the Vols’ passing attack and I think Heupel was in “let’s get this win and figure it out for next week” mode. Tennessee’s ability to run the ball on Bowling Green’s three man front made that choice even easier. On Pitt, Pat Narduzzi employs a 4-3 defense with a lot of cover four and man-to-man defensive schemes. I also expect Pitt to be much more aggressive defensively than Bowling Green was.

    Is the coaching staff finding a hard time finding a spot for Dee Beckwith or is he in the doghouse?

    Ric: To be honest, I don’t lean towards either of those answers, but I am more in line with the first option. The reality is that it has only been one game, and there’s still at least 11 more of these to go. I think by SEC play, everyone, including myself, will have a much better understanding of how Tennessee is going to use their depth. In the run game, I think getting Evans and Small plenty of carries was important, considering neither had been a workhorse in a division I game like that. Tennessee has a lot of running backs, which will make playing time harder for others. But connecting things full circle, it’s only been one game, and there are still 11 more. That doesn’t give any kind of passes, but it is to say that it may take a few games for the coaching staff to rotate through their players in the exact situation they want to see them in, maybe before SEC play. I wouldn’t worry too much about his absence in week one, but, it is something to track as SEC play gets closer and closer.

    Ryan: I’m going to say it’s a mix of having a hard time finding him a spot and being buried on the depth chart. I don’t believe Beckwith is in the dog house. I’m not sure Beckwith’s position is really up in the air at this point either. I think he’s a running back. If Tennessee didn’t like him there I think you would have already seen them experiment with Beckwith at tight end, a spot with minimal depth. That’s why I was surprised Marcus Pierce Jr. earned mop up duty snaps against Bowling Green instead of Beckwith. From what we saw in the spring and fall camp, Beckwith had been ahead of him. The challenge with Beckwith is his unique size and skillset. It feels like his quickest path to the field is as a third down back that can catch passes— played receiver in high school— and be an effective pass blocker with his massive frame.

    Who starts at quarterback this week and if it’s Milton how long is his leash?

    Ric: The starting quarterback will be Joe Milton. I see the fans, very vocal, in their displeasure with Milton. But it’s important to note, once again, that this is a LONG season. Thats not to say that Milton will be the Tennessee quarterback no matter what in 2021, but I think this staff is confident in what he can do and they want to see more of him on the field. Because he didn’t throw the ball much in the opening game, I think that extends his leash. Maybe not extends his leash. Frankly, I don’t think the coaches are looking at it that way either. Heupel and the coaching staff didn’t hold back any honesty about Milton’s play, but I don’t think they are ready to give up on the kid after only eight percent of the games have unfolded.

    Ryan: Joe Milton will start this week at quarterback and I think his leash is going to be pretty long in game. Credit to Heupel for his honesty about Milton and the quarterbacks so far. The first year head coach has been critical of his quarterback and has made it abundantly clear that Tennessee’s passing game needs to be more efficient. He’s also made it clear he’s confident in Milton and that the Michigan transfer is their starting quarterback. So this week, I’d be surprised if Milton got pulled for poor play unless he is really bad and Tennessee falls way behind. More realistically, I think you see Milton’s leash get really short following the game if he plays poorly and Tennessee loses. That then gives Tennessee two weeks to figure out what they’re doing at quarterback before opening SEC play at Florida on Sept. 25.

    What is a strength for both Tennessee and Pitt and what’s an area of weakness you think the other team will try and exploit?

    Ric: I’ll start with Pitt and say that they’re quarterback is a strength of theirs. He has been there for a good while now, and while he isn’t at the top of anyone’s nationwide QB rankings, he has something the other Tennessee QB’s don’t- continued consistency. Kenny Pickett, a redshirt senior, is heading into his fourth consecutive season as the Panther’s starting signal-caller. That’s almost NFL-esqe. So I think that aspect is a huge advantage while playing a Tennessee team that has only played one game together from top to bottom. But on the exact opposite side of the same coin, I think the Tennessee team could excel in their unpredictability. We know the Heupel offense still likely has a lot of tricks up its sleeve, and we know they didn’t go too deep into the playbook in week one. In fact, no one knows or has the secrets in Tennessee’s offensive playbook, because no one has seen it. Can Josh Heupel break out something so unexpected that it throws Pitt off their game? I’m looking at Pitt’s experience versus Tennessee’s unpredictability as something to watch this Saturday.

    Ryan: Let’s start with Tennessee where I feel confident saying the Vols’ running backs are a strength. Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans both impressed in the 2021 season debut and I think those are both really solid players. I think Pitt is going to try and take away Tennessee’s run game and make Joe Milton beat them with his arm. On Pitt, the Panthers don’t particularly excel or struggle in one area.  I’ll call their experience their strength. The Panthers bring a senior quarterback, six of their seven top receivers from 2020 and four senior offensive lineman to Knoxville. That’s a group that shouldn’t be scared of the stage and should be as prepared for the crowd noise as any ACC team can. One question I have on Pitt is its pass rush. The Panthers lost their two sack leaders from a season ago and while the pass rush got off to a strong start against UMass, it’s hard to glean much from that. Look for Tennessee to try and capitalize on that and the Panthers cover four scheme that should give the Vols’ receivers one-on-one opportunities down the field.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.