Preview Tennessee

A look at this week's game between the fighting Irish of Notre Dame and the Tennessee Volunteers

#9 Notre Dame vs. Tennessee
Fighting Irish   Volunteers
 
Saturday, November 5th
Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, IN.
2:30 EST
NBC

 
 

This series is definitely an odd series, as both teams seem to prefer the other teams turf better than their own. Tennessee leads the series 4-3 and has a 2-1 advantage at Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish won last season's game 17-13 and are even up at Neyland Stadium.

When the Volunteers and the Irish take the field on Saturday, you will be looking at two teams seemingly headed in two different directions. Tennessee is 3-4 and losers of three straight games for the first time since 1992. A loss to Notre Dame would be their fourth in a row which hasn't happened since 1988. The Volunteers have played a very challenging schedule thus far, losing close games to Florida, Georgia and Alabama, while winning in Baton Rouge against LSU. Those three losses while difficult to take, they were acceptable because the talent on each sideline was comparable. It's the latest loss to South Carolina at home that is tough to understand because Tennessee certainly had the better athletes.

So what has turned this preseason top five team into a team trying to gain their legs? I find it hard to believe it's head man Phil Fulmer who has an all-time winning percentage (.783) that is better than Lou Holtz, better than the game's best all-time coaches "Bear" Bryant, Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden, and "Pop" Warner, and his winning percentage is the best among all active coaches that have a significant resume. Fulmer is 126-35 lifetime in a conference that is traditionally one of the best in the nation. Maybe it's some assistants, but it is not the head guy.

It certainly can't be the talent because the Volunteers have been a recruiting machine the past four seasons. For now, the question can laid aside, because the cards have been dealt and the teams will take the field as is. No matter the current problems in Knoxville, I fully expect them to be up for the Irish and I expect the Volunteers to give Notre Dame all they can handle.



Volunteers On Offense:

Volunteers Offense '05 Rank Per Game ND Defense '05 Rank Per Game
Rushing Offense #98 110.7 Rushing Defense #25 119.00
Pass Offense #79 204.3 Pass Defense #114 306.6
Pass Eff. Offense #101 101.8 Pass Eff. Defense #58 122.4
Total Offense #99 315.00 Total Defense #96 425.6
Scoring Offense #108 16.14 Scoring Defense #60 25.3

The most glaring issue for the Volunteers has been the offense. They simply haven't made enough plays with the ball so they have struggled to move the ball. When they have moved it, the breaks seem to bet the boys and the ball bounces the wrong way. The effort has been there, but the breaks have not and frustration has set in.

Tennessee runs a multiple formation offense. They will use two or three wide receiver sets and even double tight end. They'll run from the "I" formation and offset "I", single back with the quarterback under center, or out of the shotgun with one back. They are a power running team that will mix zone or man blocking. They have run from the spread but because the quarterbacks have struggled, they have relied more on the running game.

When the Vols run the ball, which will be often, they will come right at you with most of the plays coming off guard. They generally like to keep their back's shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage so they don't run many sweeps. Tennessee has lost its top two running backs, senior Gerald Riggs and true freshman Montario Hardesty, to season ending injuries. While potentially devastating to most teams, the Vols gave Arian Foster his first start against South Carolina and he showed he could handle the job as he rushed for 148 yards and one touchdown on 25 carries (5.9 per attempt). The depth is a major concern, but if Foster can stay fresh he certainly has the talent to move the chains.

Tennessee will attempt to establish the running game and then run play action passes off that. At quarterback, the Vols have used both sophomore Erik Ainge and senior Rick Clausen. Ainge was named the starter at the beginning of the season, but his struggles have kept Clausen one step from the field. Both players have their limitations and either quarterback could start and play against the Irish. When Clausen is in, Tennessee will use a short passing game, because he lacks the arm strength to get the ball downfield. Tennessee uses quick five-yard curls to give the receiver a one-on-one opportunity against the cornerback in hopes the wide receiver will make a play. This is the same philosophy the Irish use when they throw the quick hitches to Maurice Stovall and Jeff Samardzija. The Vols love to throw to their backs and use the fullback as much as they do the tailbacks. They like to run the wheel route to the fullback down the sideline. They do not use the tight end very much and seem to have abandoned him as a receiving target. When Ainge is in the game they will start to extend the field vertically, but Tennessee seems to only throw the deep streak to the sideline and avoid the middle of the field.

Another issue with the Tennessee fans has been the production of the wide receivers, Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain, C.J. Fayton, Chris Hannon and Bret Smith. This group might have more big play potential than any group in the country. All of them were top receivers in the country coming out of high school and they all are outstanding athletes. They should be making plays, but they have been inconsistent this season. As a group they have only five touchdown receptions. Fayton is the only receiver with a catch over 35 yards and the group is averaging a pedestrian 11.4 yards per reception. They don't throw many deep outs or crossing patterns. They don't throw many slants or delay routes over the middle. This offense seems to rely on the short passes to the outside to get the receivers the ball so they can make a play on the cornerback. Thus far the receivers haven't been able to do that, but they certainly are capable of making big plays, so Mike Richardson and Ambrose Wooden must make tackles.

The guys driving the team up front, Arron Sears (Jr.), Rob Smith (Jr.), Richie Gandy (Sr.), Cody Douglas (Sr.), and Albert Toeaina (Sr.) are an experienced group with four returning starters from last year's unit. The Irish haven't seen a group this big since Michigan, with three players over 330 pounds. The offensive line is well suited to run the ball as they are a big powerful group. But even they have struggled to really get the offense moving as Tennessee is only averaging 110 yards on the ground. They have protected the quarterback well in giving up only 10 sacks on the season. An impressive number considering the defenses that they have knocked heads with.

It can't be ignored that the Vols have played outstanding defensive teams in Alabama No. 3, Florida No. 5, Georgia No. 8, LSU No. 17, Ole Miss No. 26, South Carolina No. 44, and UAB No. 46. Granted the SEC offenses are down, but this is rough going for anyone, let alone an offense trying to find its legs.

Key match-ups: Generally I look at a match-up from the opponent's offense with a part of the Irish defense, but this Tennessee offense seems to be fighting itself right now. In the last three games they have only converted 33 percent of their third-down opportunities. The Irish defense Irish defense is ranked No.15 in the nation by allowing offenses to convert only 30 percent of their third-downs. If the Tennessee offense can get on track, they have the talent to be outstanding. The question is if they will make peace with themselves on Saturday.



Anticipated Depth Chart. Returning starter = +.


  QB ATT-COMP-YRD TDs/INTs Comp %
  +Rick Clausen Sr. 95-160- 1,107 3/4 59.4
  +Erik Ainge So. 35-85- 323 2/4 41.2

Rick Clausen (6-3/210) is a smart, heady player and a good leader, but his arm strength is a liability and he isn't very mobile. Clausen is a mature quarterback, he'll stand strong in the pocket, he understands the game and he'll make quick decisions. He is very accurate from 20 yards in and can frustrate the defense by pounding the short zones, but he will rarely test a defense deep. When he does go deep, his balls tend to float. He if he is going to throw a deep ball it will be along the sideline, away from traffic. Tennessee will move the pocket for him and he works well out of the shotgun. His best game of the season came in the Volunteers comeback victory over LSU; 21-32 for 196 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Clausen's career totals: 181-308 for 2,901 yards, 11 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 58.8 career completion percentage.

Erik Ainge (6-6/212) has all the tools to be successful; he has height, a strong arm, he throws a nice ball and he has good mobility. The downside is that Ainge hasn't been very consistent and he's really struggling to put the ball in a spot where his receivers have a chance to get their hands on it. At this time, he appears to have lost confidence in himself or in his receivers. He doesn't look comfortable in the pocket and he tends to rush his passes. Ainge was named the starter over Clausen at the beginning of this season. He started out well against UAB, but from that game to this point he has really struggled as his completion percentage has fallen to 41.2 percent and his passing efficiency rating is dangling at 71.45. In 2004 as a true freshman, Ainge shared time with fellow true freshman, Brent Schaeffer in a dual quarterback situation. Schaeffer was injured and has since transferred. As the starter against the Irish in 2004, Ainge was having a solid game (11-18 for 149 and one touchdown) until he suffered a broken collar bone. The injury knocked him out for the season and Clausen took over as the teams quarterback. Ainge's career passing totals: 144-283 for 1,775, 19 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and 50.9 completion percentage.



  RB Hgt/Wgt Rushes-Yards
  Arian Foster Fr. 6-1/211 61/285, 2TDs
  David Yancey Jr. 5-8/198 5/12 0TD

Arian Foster started out as the No.3 running back at the start of the season, but he's been thrust into the starting role with the loss of Riggs and Hardesty. In his first start against South Carolina, he showed he could handle the job as he rushed for 148 yards and one touchdown on 25 carries (5.9 per attempt). Foster has good, not great speed; he's more power runner than finesse. He has good vision, he hits the hole with authority and runs downhill. He's kind of a slippery runner as he makes his way through traffic. He has had some trouble holding onto the ball and he tends to get his weight a little too far out in front of him, which prevents him from breaking longer runs. But he's going to be a good one.

David Yancey is a walk-on that occupies the No. 2 spot. He likely won't get a lot of carries and there is a drop-off from Foster. If something happens to Foster, Yancey probably isn't a long-term answer. Instead the Volunteers could look to one of their fullbacks to pound the Irish. He has good speed, but isn't elusive. If the defense is worn down he can pound the ball on the defense.



  FB Hgt/Wgt Recpts-Yards
  +Cory Anderson Jr. 6-3/275 11 recpts/105 yrds 0TDs
  David Holbert So. 6-1/259 2 recpts/30 yrds 0TDs

Corey Anderson is a monster at fullback. Although he looks like an offensive lineman in the backfield, Anderson has good speed for his size and he will be used as an offensive weapon. He doesn't get many carries, but the Volunteers will throw him the ball. They like to use him on wheel routes down the sideline. He has pretty good hands and he can open holes for the other big back coming through. Anderson will likely get 75 percent of the playing time at fullback.

David Holbert is smaller than Anderson, but he is used in much the same way as Anderson. He has good hands and he see the ball at times. Like Anderson he can play in the one back set and catches the ball well.




  WR Hgt/Wgt Stats
  +Robert Meachem So. 6-3/218  21 rcpt/228 yds/ 1TDs
  +Jayson Swain Jr. 6-1/218  19 rcpts/252 yds/0 TDs
  +Chris Hannon Sr. 6-4/200  17 rcpts/192 yds/1 TD
  +C.J. Fayton Sr. 6-2/205  16 rcpts/183 yds/1 TD
  +Bret Smith Jr. 6-3/188  16 rcpts/181 yds/2 TD

C.J. Fayton might be the best receiver in this talented group because he is the most consistent of the bunch. He catches almost everything and can make the spectacular grab. He's not a speed guy, but he's a solid receiver. He runs good routes so he can get open. He suffered a high ankle sprain and missed some time. He did make some appearances in the South Carolina game so the Irish should see him, but I would expect him to be less than 100 percent.

Robert Meacham leads the team in receptions and he has been fairly dependable. He has very good size and speed – deep threat. You look at him and you see athlete. He can make the great catch and then turn around and drop the easy one. Meacham suffered a knee injury in the spring, and he's been battling minor injuries ever since.

Jayson Swain is another great athlete but he's more of the possession receiver. He's got a bigger frame and he's the guy that can go over the middle, but he probably isn't going to test the secondary deep.

Brett Smith is a tall lean receiver that has very good speed and is a deep threat. He had a very good game against Georgia (four receptions for 85 yards), but Smith has struggle to establish himself in the Volunteer offense.

Chris Hannon might be the best athlete of the group, great speed and size, but he's been an enigma. He has all the tools to be a dominant receiver, but he just hasn't made many plays. He can stretch a defense and he's dangerous in the open field, but he's been inconsistent.



  TE Hgt/Wgt Stats
  Chris Brown So. 6-3/239 7 rcpts/70 yds/ 0TDs
  Justin Reed Sr. 6-7/289 - -
  Brad Cottam So. 6-8/263 - -

Chris Brown, Tennessee wanted to use him in the passing game and he began the season as the starter, but for whatever reason, he hasn't been seeing the ball. He isn't a guy that will get downfield into the secondary, but he does have good hands He's a decent blocker but he isn't a great blocker.

At nearly 290 pounds, Justin Reed is an offensive lineman with a receiver's number. Since Tennessee has been emphasizing the running game more lately, he has been getting the lion's share of the tight end minutes because he's a better blocker than Brown. He's really not a threat to catch the ball and is generally used as a sixth offensive lineman.




  Offensive Line Hgt/Wgt Experience
  +Arron Sears Jr. 6-4/338 20 Starts
  +LG Rob Smith Jr. 6-4/306 20 starts
  C Richie Gandy Sr. 6-5/312 9 Starts
  +RG Cody Douglas Sr. 6-4/330 21 Starts
  +RT Albert Toeaina Sr. 6-6/355 28 Starts

Arron Sears was a stud coming out of high school and he's one of the best up front for the Volunteers. He doesn't have ideal tackle size, but his exceptional feet allow him to keep some the best rushing defensive ends off the quarterback. He is strong and will put the helmet onto a defender -- good drive blocker.

Rob Smith is their Dan Santucci. Nobody outworks him and he plays through the whistle. He's very quick at the snap which allows him to get into good position against the defender. He can get out to the linebackers and they will pull him. This will be an interesting battle between Smith and Notre Dame's Derek Landri. There aren't many linemen that can beat Landri off the snap so Smith could neutralize his advantage.

Richie Gandy is coming of a knee injury and he just came back into the lineup full-time. He's a fifth-year player that really didn't see much action prior to this season. He is a good lineman but he has his limitations. He relies on his experience and technique to get by. He struggles to get out to the linebackers because of mobility issues.

Cody Douglas has been inconsistent this season and he's struggled much of the season to dominate the opposition. He has loads of potential, but it hasn't translated onto the field. He's big, so he can be tough to get around on the rush, but he will allow pressure. He's a good run blocker, but he'll struggle to get out to the second level and block in space.

Albert Toeaina is a big powerful blocker at right tackle. If he can get into his defender, it's generally bad news for the defensive man. He does a good job in pass protection but he'll get help throughout the game. He's good enough to be a tackle on an SEC team, which generally means he can keep people off the quarterback, but he's probably a better run blocker.

Volunteers On Defense:

Volunteer Defense '05 Rank Per Game ND Offense '05 Rank Per Game
Rushing Defense #5 85.6 Rushing Offense #55 152.7
Pass Defense #44 208.3 Pass Offense #5 340.0
Pass Eff. Defense #31 113.8 Pass Eff. Offense #7 160.5
Total Defense #12 293.9 Total Offense #9 492.7
Scoring Defense #5 16.0 Scoring Offense #11 37.9

Defensively you're not going to find many teams that are as solid top to bottom as Tennessee, and to be honest there really isn't much more that needs to be said. They have speed everywhere on the field and play with a sense of urgency.

The front four of Jason Hall (Sr.) Jesse Mahelona (Sr.), Justin Harrell (Jr.), Parys Haralson (Sr.) are experienced, they have speed and power- they are dominant and will test the Irish offensive line all day. They are very active and this group is easily the best front Notre Dame will see all year. They can generate pressure with the main four guys and they don't really need to send a linebacker. Tennessee won't zone blitz but they will send a backer from time to time, and if they really want to put the hammer down they will send six. They play one-gap defense, where the defense is predicated on the ability of the tackles to penetrate the offensive line and disrupt in the backfield –and they do a good job of that. There is depth, so Tennessee will rotate players in without a drop in productivity.

The linebackers Omar Gaither (Sr.), Kevin Simon (Sr.) and Jason Mitchell (Sr.) all play outstanding football and fly around the field. They are very aggressive and very good tacklers. They drop very well into coverage. They can be too aggressive against play action and because of their aggressiveness they will over pursue opening up cutback opportunities.

The defensive backs, like the front seven have a lot of speed. The Vols are really playing four cornerbacks in the defensive backfield. They don't support the run well, but with the talent in front of them, they generally don't need to. The group is young, so Brady Quinn and Charlie Weis may be able to take advantage of them.

Key mach-ups: I generally don't take the obvious match-up, but this is all that matters; the Irish offensive line against the Volunteer defensive front. Notre Dame probably won't run for a bunch of yards, but they need to run enough. The line must also continue to protect Quinn and give him time to run Weis' play.

Anticipated Depth Chart. Returning starter = +


  Defensive Line Hgt/Wgt Experience
  DE Jason Hall Sr. 6-3/260 8 Starts/ 5 sacks
  +RT Jesse Mahelona Sr. 6-2/297 18 Starts/ 5 TFL
  +LT Justin Harrell Jr. 6-4/306 18 Starts/ 5.5 TFL
  +DE Parys Haralson Sr. 6-2/248 29 Starts/ 5.5 sacks

Jason Hall is only getting on the field as a starter for the first time in his fifth year, but that's more of a testament to the talent Tennessee gets along the defensive line. He has very solid numbers (26 tackles) and I really like to watch this guy play. He's technically sound, plays his assignments and he doesn't over pursue – good discipline. He gets off the corner very well so he'll be a challenge for Mark LeVoir.

Parys Harrleson (30 tackles) is a Justin Tuck type player. He pins his ears back and gets after the quarterback every play. He has a number of moves, but he'll generally try to get the corner on the tackle. Because he dedicates himself to pressuring the passer, you can run underneath him. He pursues the ball from sideline to sideline and can chase down a play from the backside. Ryan Harris generally does well against this type of defensive end, so this will be another very good match-up to watch.

Jesse Mahelona (24 tackles) is as good as they come inside and Irish fans will remember him from last year's game when he was in the backfield on almost every play. He's very difficult to move off his spot and he is very mobile. It is hard to find a weakness with this player.

Justin Herrell (29 tackles) is the lone junior along the defensive front, and he might be the best of the bunch. He's cat-quick and refuses to stay blocked – very active. He's strong and technically sound. He'll be a very difficult player to control. Coupled with Mahelona, the Irish interior three will have their hands full all day.

Tony McDaniel and Turk McBride will rotate into the middle of the line most of the game and there isn't much, if any drop-off from Mahelona and Harrell.



  Linebackers Hgt/Wgt Experience
  +SLB Omar Gaither Sr. 6-2/230 18 Starts/ 53 tckls
  +MLB Kevin Simon Sr. 5-11/234 25 starts/ 63 tckls
  +WLB Jason Mitchell Sr. 6-1/227 24 Starts/ 26 tckls

Omar Gaither is a player Notre Dame recruited. He is an outstanding linebacker that, and like most Tennessee defenders, goes sideline to sideline. He is a very sure tackler. He doesn't like to take on a lot of offensive linemen, so you can run right at him. The problem is actually getting to him because he plays very well in space. He's outstanding in pass coverage and reads the quarterback very well. He Quinn locks onto a tight end or running back, Gaither will likely get his hands on the ball.

Kevin Simon is another player Notre Dame recruited. He's from De LaSalle high school (Concord, Calif.) and is a former teammate of Derek Landri. He's struggled with injuries throughout his career at Tennessee, but now healthy, he's living up to all of his expectations. He has the vision of a running back in that he sees the play developing in front of him and then gets to the point of attack. He has great instincts, understands the game and really gets after the ball. He is a fantastic tackler.

Marvin Mitchell, like the other linebackers, plays sideline to sideline and tackles very well. He flies to the ball and he is very sound in coverage.

Tennessee has more talent behind these three, but Gaither, Simon and Mitchell will likely play the entire game.



  Defensive Backs Hgt/Wgt Experience
  CB Jonathan Wade Jr. 6-0/185 4 Starts/ 2 INT
  CB Inquoris Johnson So. 5-9/167 2 Starts/ 1 INT
  +FS Jonathan Hefney So. 5-9/174 18 Starts/ 2 INT
  +SS Antwan Stewart Jr. 6-0/193 12 starts/ 24 tckls

Inquoris "Inky" Johnson took over the starting corner spot for the injured Jason Allen. He has great quickness and is a lockdown cover corner. He isn't strong in run support, but he doesn't need to be. Notre Dame has had a lot of success with its big receivers against smaller defensive backs. At 5'9" Johnson may be the guy Notre Dame goes after.

Jonathan Wade has better size than Johnson at 6'0". He took over the starting spot from Fellows after a couple games and he's really emerged as a very good player. He's been shutting down his guy, so teams have been going away from him. He's spent his time between track and football so he's still developing as a football player, but he has serious speed.

Jonathan Hefney doesn't have a lot of size for a safety at 5'9", but he's been playing very well thus far. He was an All-SEC performer last year at cornerback, so his adds additional cover skills to the defensive backfield. He is a tough player, but he doesn't provide a lot of run support.

Antwan Stewart is another guy who is a former cornerback that was moved to safety this year to add additional coverage ability in the secondary. He isn't big for a strong safety and he won't put fear into opposing running backs, but he's a solid tackler.

Roshaun Fellows (So., 6-0, 184) started eight games last season and the first three games this year until Wade wrestled the spot away from him. He was an All-SEC freshman last season, so he has talent. He is the Volunteers nickel defensive back.

This group has great speed and coverage ability, but they are young and are prone to a mistake now and again.





Final Thought -
Because Tennessee is struggling, the defense continues to feel the pressure to make plays. As the year moves on, this causes breakdowns from being overly aggressive. Weis will use the aggressiveness to his advantage. Tennessee has a great defense, but as I said last week, I'll take Charlie Weis against any defense in the country.








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