Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a beat writer who covers Tennessee’s opponent.
The Vols and Panthers kick-off at Neyland Stadium at noon ET Saturday.
Question: Were there any takeaways you were able to glean from Pittsburgh’s
51-7 win over UMass?
Answer: It was kind of hard to put too much stock in any one thing Pitt did against UMass. The Minutemen scored 12 points in four games last year, and it showed. But my main takeaway was tight end Lucas Krull. The Panthers had only 10 catches total from their tight ends last year. Krull was supposed to contribute after transferring in from Florida, but a knee injury kept him out of all but one game in 2020. Against UMass, Krull had five catches and a touchdown, providing a security blanket for Kenny Pickett. As long as he stays healthy, the former Gator is expected to play a big role in the red-zone offense for a team that struggled mightily in that area last season.
Q: Quarterback Kenny Pickett has played for the last four years. What
does he bring to the table and is his skillset limited anywhere?
A: Pickett doesn’t have the biggest arm in the world. But he’s accurate despite wide receiver drops bringing down his completion percentage the last two seasons. He has enough athleticism to not only buy time outside the pocket, but scramble for first downs. He’s better now at getting through his progressions. Overall, Pickett is a dependable guy you trust to run your offense — an offense he’s been in now for three years.
Q: Pitt has the bulk of its production back from last season’s offense. What
is the expectation on that side of the ball and how high is its
A: Pickett has a number of playmakers at his disposal. I mentioned Krull, but freshman All-American receiver Jordan Addison leads the deepest wideout group Pickett has ever worked with. What would keep this offense from reaching its full potential would be those red-zone concerns and its running game. Pitt is sometimes generally thought of as this ground-and-pound team, but the Panthers had as many passing attempts last year as Mac Jones’ Alabama. They really haven’t been able to run the ball since Whipple took over in 2019, and their red-zone touchdown rate has been near the bottom among Power Five teams. Those two things are related.
Q: Pitt had five defenders selected in the 2021 NFL Draft including
three defensive lineman, are people anticipating a major drop off on
the front four and what are the expectations for this defense?
A: Internally, Pitt’s players and coaches don’t think there will be a dropoff. Deslin Alexandre, Haba Baldonado and John Morgan had a lot of experience rotating in for Patrick Jones and Rashad Weaver over the last two years. And at defensive tackle, Calijah Kancey is a legit All-American candidate. I think Pitt has the best group of linebackers in the ACC. The question mark, in my opinion, is more in the secondary. Damar Hamlin, Jason Pinnock and Paris Ford are off to the NFL, leaving newish starters back there. There will be growing pains, too.
Q: Is there any area you feel like Pitt has a matchup advantage
against Tennessee or vice versa?
A: I think Pitt’s front-seven is going to make life difficult on Joe Milton (and every quarterback the Panthers face this year). Josh Heupel’s offense is one Pitt is familiar with after disrupting it in an upset over UCF in 2019. McKenzie Milton also lit up the Panthers in 2018, but he was a veteran in Heupel’s system. Milton seems to still be working out the kinks. I think Pitt’s pass-rush has enough talent and exotic enough blitz packages to pounce on any indecision.
Q: Score Prediction?
A: Pitt 30, Tennessee 27