Five questions about the Vols.
It’s the second year with Butch Jones. Where’s the biggest difference? Mentality? Schemes? Why is this team different?
Couple things. Although the roster is right smack in the middle of a transition with an entirely new staff doing film eval on recruiting targets and doing the actual recruiting, the 2014 signing class that Scout ranked No. 4 nationally has shown up in a major way immediately. Tennessee has seen a nation-leading 22 true freshmen play already. It's a lot to ask teenagers to lead the team to the promised land this fall but the future is bright. Secondly, the entire coaching staff returned from 2013. The continuity on both sides is apparent with what returning players there are. Players like senior quarterback Justin Worley are considerably more comfortable now than they were 12 months ago.
If Tennessee is going to pull off a huge upset, somebody unexpected is going to have to step up. Who could be that guy on offense or defense that is ready to have that breakout game on a national stage?
It's going to take the Vols running the football far better than they have in the first two games (3.3 yards per carry) and the defensive line will have to show it can at least occupy blocks so linebackers can run free. A brand new starting lineup on both lines doesn't bode well for a team fighting to upset its first top 5 team since 2005. The defensive line is deeper, more athletic and figures to rotate 8-10 players, which makes it hard to single out one person on either side. For the sake of argument, nose tackle Danny O'Brien played his best game ever versus Utah State and the 6-2, 286-pound redshirt freshman must trump that effort in Norman. Offensively, center Mack Crowder must have the game of his life to help in clean-pocket creation and turning Jordan Phillips out.
What’s the mindset from talking to the players and coaches this week? Is it about making positive steps or is anything but a victory disappointing? Tennessee is 2-28 vs. AP top 25 teams since 2008.
A roster flip not only helps with the influx of talent but in an entirely new mindset (41 losses in previous six seasons). Numerous state champions have been added to the roster in the last two classes. Adding 23 in-state products to the roster in the last two years doesn't hurt from a pride-in-the-program standpoint. It's a program rich with tradition and competes against NFL talent weekly once they get into the SEC schedule. Tennessee plays just two teams (Florida, Kentucky) that had losing records a season ago, had arguably the nation's toughest schedule in 2013 and is used to playing in front of 84,000-102,000 fans. Thus, the Vols won't be shocked by anything Oklahoma has from an atmosphere or talent standpoint. However, far too many in the two-deep will be playing in their first road game ever. Oklahoma certainly has Tennessee's respect and the test should help ready a youthful roster for a trip to Athens to face a Georgia team in two weeks that could easily also be top 5 but carries much more importance as an SEC divisional contest. Beating two teams that won bowls last winter has the Vols thinking positively but neither of those foes had anyone like a Keith Ford or Sterling Shepard.
Quarterback Justin Worley is off to such a nice start. What’s the biggest reason for his early success?
First, it's the senior's second year in coordinator Mike Bajakian's offense. Secondly, the talent at running back, tight end and wide receiver is not only much improved but those contributors are on the same page as Worley, who was starting to turn the corner in 2013 before a broken thumb ended his season in October. Worley is stepping into throws and getting rid of the football quite a bit quicker than ever.
How healthy is Tennessee going to be? Will the Vols have everybody at their disposal or are they entering wounded?
The offensive line already had its question marks but fifth-year senior and former walk-on left tackle Jacob Gilliam was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the opener against Utah State. Junior wide receiver Cody Blanc and former Scout four-star lineman Charles Mosley suffered season-ending injuries in the summer months. Defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry hasn't practiced in weeks, has battled torn knee ligaments in the past and won't be in uniform. Freshman running back and former four-star Derrell Scott is doubtful. Starting wide receiver Von Pearson suffered a high-ankle sprain against Arkansas State and is out. Starting tight end Ethan Wolf suffered a hyper-extended knee on Saturday and is questionable.