Here’s a brief history lesson:
Game 1: Austin Peay backup Jacob Sexton carried 7 times for 25 yards (an average of 3.6 yards per carry)
For those keeping score at home, these nine “mobile QBs” combined to burn the Big Orange for 688 yards and 7 touchdowns while averaging a mind-boggling 7.64 yards per carry.
Given these numbers, Jancek’s mood had to be dark when he learned that the Vols would open 2014 against two of the NCAA’s premier dual-threat quarterbacks – Chuckie Keeton of Utah State and Fredi Knighten of Arkansas State.
Jancek’s mood is a lot brighter these days, and understandably so. His troops limited Keeton to 12 yards on eight carries in Game 1 and held Knighten to 65 yards on 14 rushes in Game 2. Much credit for these numbers is the improved speed of Tennessee’s defense.
“We’re undersized but that gives us a speed advantage,” defensive end Corey Vereen said. “We can move a lot more, blitz a lot more, do a lot more things – as opposed to the last group, which was a little too heavy and a little too slow.”
Nose tackle Danny O’Brien agrees that greater mobility along the front four is helping Tennessee keep opposing passers in the pocket this fall.
“I think the athleticism on our D-line has really picked up, with guys like Owen Williams and Derek Barnett coming in,” O’Brien said. “Owen did a great job last week (5 stops, 2 sacks). He’s really coming along.”
Jancek agrees that better team speed is enabling Tennessee to keep QBs from running wild this fall.
“It’s helped,” he said. “It’s helped in the D-line, containing the quarterback. It’s helped at linebacker, when the quarterback does break out. It’s helped in our back end, to get guys down.”
In addition to playing faster, Tennessee’s defensive linemen are playing smarter. Each is assigned an approach “point” on the quarterback, so that there are no gaping holes in the pass rush. Whereas last year’s linemen routinely broke point, this year’s front four is managing to stay on point.
“Obviously, part of it is that we’re much more athletic,” defensive line coach Steve Stripling told IT. “We’re also a little more experienced at keeping our points. You saw last year what happens when you don’t keep your points on the quarterback.”
O’Brien believes the lesson has been driven home this year.
“We emphasize our quarterback points all week every week,” he said. “We’re not going to have the defensive line let the whole defense down. It starts upfront if you want to have a championship defense.”
Although Knighten escaped the pocket a couple of times last Saturday, he never broke free for a splash play. That’s a credit to the Vol secondary.
“There’s going to be some 10- to 12-yard gains in football but, hopefully, the speed in your back end limits them to 10- to 12-yard gains and not 30- to 40-yard gains like we experienced at times last year,” Jancek said. “I think that’s the significance of having speed in your secondary.”
In addition to better speed, Vol defensive backs are displaying a better grasp of assignment football this fall than last.
“I think what they’ve done is play with great leverage,” secondary coach Willie Martinez told IT. “That’s really what a secondary has to do: Understand where their leverage is, where their help is, do their job and not try to do the job of anyone else.”
Saturday’s game at No. 4 Oklahoma finds the Vols facing a mobile quarterback for the third week in a row. Trevor Knight doesn’t carry the ball as often as Keeton and Knighten but he’s a run threat, nonetheless.
“He can throw it and he can hurt you with his feet,” Jancek said, “but I don’t think he’s looking to run as much as the last two quarterbacks we have faced.”
Stripling agrees, noting: “This young man (Knight) is very, very athletic. They don’t utilize him (as a runner) as much as the previous two teams but he’s very mobile.”
As Vol fans are acutely aware, “very mobile” quarterbacks can cause very big problems, whether they’re burning a defense with designed runs or impromptu scrambles. Knight certainly has Tennessee’s attention.
"He's a scrambler,” Vol safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. “He's speedy and he can throw the ball, so he's a dual-threat quarterback. That's hard to stop but we're going to do our best."
So far, Tennessee’s best has been pretty good.