Quarterback Justin Worley: Pardon me for stating the obvious but all of Tennessee’s wide receiver talent is wasted if the quarterback can’t get the ball to the guys on a consistent basis. Thanks to seven starts in 2013, Worley should be a better QB in 2014 than he was in 2013. Tennessee’s offensive coordinator sees signs of progress, mentally and physically.
“He’s making quicker decisions, making more accurate decisions,” Mike Bajakian said. “And he has better ball location.”
Worley is not as gifted as Vol predecessors Andy Kelly, Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning, Tee Martin, Casey Clausen, Erik Ainge, Jonathan Crompton or Tyler Bray. He’ll never complete 65 percent of his passes. He’ll never throw for 3,600 yards. He’ll never beat anyone with his running ability. Basically, he’s a distributor whose primary function is getting the ball to the playmakers and avoiding the mistakes that produce defeats.
As Bajakian put it: “He just needs to protect the football and manage the football game.”
Because he is a senior with 10 starts under his belt, Worley should provide a level of poise that rubs off on his teammates. That will be critical Sunday night. When adversity strikes – and it will at some point – he must be the cool head that keeps his inexperienced supporting cast on point.
Left offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam: Because Worley is not a mobile QB, protecting his blind side is of monumental importance. The player entrusted with this critical task is Gilliam, who earned a scholarship as a fifth-year senior.
Tennessee fans are understandably worried about a former walk-on with limited experience filling one of the most crucial roles on offense. Their concerns are not shared by Tennessee’s offensive line coach, however. He has complete confidence in Gilliam’s ability to pass protect.
“I feel very comfortable,” Don Mahoney said. “He’s proven it over spring ball. He’s proven it over the summer and fall camp. He’s seen guys across the ball (like quality pass rushers Curt Maggitt and Corey Vereen), and his production has been there on a consistent basis. He hasn’t been up and down. I feel very comfortable in that, and I feel very comfortable in his confidence level and the way he’s carrying himself. I’m really proud of his efforts and what he has shown.”
Keep an eye on Gilliam Sunday night. If the man he’s blocking is pressuring Worley – even if he’s not recording sacks – then Tennessee’s potentially explosive passing game could be nullified.
Defensive tackle Jordan Williams: Tennessee’s top eight defensive linemen include a first-year JUCO transfer (Owen Williams), three freshmen (Derek Barnett, Dewayne Hendrix, Dimarya Mixon) and a guy who hasn’t played in nearly two years (Curt Maggitt). That puts a lot of pressure on senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams, who must provide quality play and quality leadership.
Williams (284 pounds) and fellow starting tackle Danny O’Brien (286) are undersized. So are backups Owen Williams (288) and Dimarya Mixon (275), meaning there’s a good chance Utah State will try to pound the ball down Tennessee’s throat Sunday night. The tackles must at least manage a stalemate to keep blockers from getting to middle linebacker A.J. Johnson. That’s Job 1.
Assuming the tackles can avoid getting gashed up the gut, Job 2 is pressuring elusive Aggie quarterback Chuckie Keeton without allowing him to scramble out of the pocket. Jordan Williams believes the Vols are up to the challenge.
“We’ve got a lot of speed on the D-line – myself, O’Brien, (freshman end Derek) Barnett coming in with fresh legs and we’ve got (sophomore end Corey) Vereen,” Williams said. “Man, we’re going to be on him.”
Tennessee’s front four had better “be on him” because Keeton is the kind of quarterback who can turn a broken play into a big gain. Jordan Williams concedes as much, noting that Keeton reminds him of Oregon QB Marcus Mariota.
“He can make something out of nothing,” Williams said. “He’s a real explosive guy, so we’re just going to get after him.”
If Jordan Williams can fill his gap on run plays and help contain Keeton on pass plays Tennessee’s chances of winning go way up. If Utah State finds running room up the gut or if Keeton breaks contain on a regular basis, the Vols are almost sure to lose.
Weakside linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin: Having bulked up from 211 pounds to 230, Maybin now has the heft to be solid against the run. The Vols, though, are counting on him being versatile enough to stay on the field for running downs and passing downs alike.
“That’s what you’re looking for,” Vol linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen told IT. “In today’s game it’s not so much the big bulky 6-foot-3, 255-pound linebacker like they used to have. Everybody’s spreading you out and making you play in space, so you’ve got to have guys that can play in space.”
As a converted safety, Maybin’s versatility will be crucial against a quarterback like Keeton, who can burn a defense with his running, as well as his passing.
As Thigpen said: “Maybin is a hybrid – one of those linebackers that you can play in the box on the run fits and also cover a guy without you having to bring in another nickel.”
If Maybin can do a solid job in coverage, then Tennessee’s defense could hold up fairly well. If he can’t – forcing the Vols to use six defensive backs on passing downs – Sunday could be a long night for the Big Orange defense.
Tennessee’s kicker: The staff’s reluctance to announce a Game 1 starter suggests one of two things: (1) Sophomore George Bullock and freshman Aaron Medley have been equally good in preseason or (2) Bullock and Medley have been equally mediocre.
Perhaps one will handle placements Sunday night and the other kickoffs. Special teams coach Mark Elder is OK with that scenario but doesn’t find it preferable.
“Not necessarily,” he said. “I’d prefer to not have what we had last year, with someone (Michael Palardy) doing all three. That’s just a lot – doing the punting, kicking and kickoffs. As for the kicking versus the kickoffs, that’s not a huge deal.”
Whether it’s Bullock or Medley or both, kicking will be critical for Tennessee. Given all of the inexperience on offense and defense, the Vols need the field position that good kickoffs provide and they need the confidence that comes with having a kicker who is automatic on extra points and close to automatic on field goals of 40 yards or less.
Nothing takes the air out of an offense like sustaining a good drive, then coming away with no points because of a missed field goal.
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