Keys to the game: Western Carolina

Tennessee squares off against Western Carolina in Neyland Stadium Saturday in hopes of working out some kinks before heading into SEC play.

This game might just have a teensy bit less hype than last week’s matchup.

Tennessee is looking to rebound after a double overtime loss to Oklahoma with a nice tune-up game against Western Carolina. This can be good, in that it gives Team 119 a chance to exorcise some demons and tweak the lineup with a potential beat down of the Catamounts, but it can also be bad, in that it’s probably tough to get up for a game against an FCS foe after such heartache just one week ago.

The Vols said all the right things leading into this game. Cornerback Cameron Sutton called today’s matchup the most important of the season simply because it’s the next one on the schedule. Butch Jones went out of his way to describe just how fragile winning at the college level can be. Team 119 will certainly have to take that mindset, even if it is forced, into this matchup to dispose of Western Carolina without looking ahead to Florida next week.

Tennessee should easily take care of business Saturday, and it should also be able to accomplish some healthy growth in a couple of key areas before diving into SEC play next week.

1. Show your throw

The Vols come into this matchup averaging just 165 yards in the air — good for 13th in the SEC — and only attempt an average of 27 passes a game. The team’s leading wide receiver, freshman Jauan Jennings, has just 61 yards on the season. The passing game absolutely has to improve, and what better way to tinker with it than against a team you simply outmatch in every phase of the game. Turbulence on the offensive line has played a part in the throw game’s lack of success early on, as well as a disconnect between quarterback Josh Dobbs and his eight receivers who constantly rotate in and have shown trouble separating from press coverage. This game is a chance to throw the ball more and work on this aspect of the offense that needs to monumentally improve with the SEC slate looming.

2. Youngster reps

This game is a chance for Butch Jones to empty his arsenal and give everyone with a helmet playing time if the Vols’ starters are able to put things to bed before halftime. Tennessee should be able to toss its young budding stars like Kahlil McKenzie and Preston Williams into the mix for extensive playing time with an opportunity to showcase why they are prepped to carry the torch for the Vols in the future. Can the right side of the offensive line thrust freshmen like Chance Hall and Jack Jones into valuable repetitions? Will John Kelly have an opportunity for double digit carries? Will fans get their first real glimpse at freshman Quinten Dormady’s wide-ranging toolbox at quarterback? If the starters take care of business, this ideal scenario could play out perfectly for Jones’ team.

3. Linebacker look

Freshman Darrin Kirkland is preparing for his first start at Tennessee, replacing walk-on Colton Jumper at middle linebacker. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound Indianapolis native with a photographic memory hopes to turn in a fast start by successfully setting the defense and showing the coaching staff he has the acumen and talent to be their starting Mike moving forward. Kirkland’s presence won’t be entirely new, however, as he’s received playing time in relief of Jumper in the first two games of the season. The fresh face at linebacker will be Austin Smith, who defensive coordinator John Jancek said is poised to take over for injured starter Curt Maggitt when Tennessee is in its 4-3 scheme. This is the perfect game for the former Scout three-star to get his ears wet and adjust to the pace of college play.

"Austin continues to grow and develop,” Butch Jones said Wednesday. “He has done a very good job. He gets better each and every day — his attitude [and] mentality from a physical standpoint. He is very explosive, can run, has worked hard in the weight room.”

Smith’s addition to the linebacking corps and indoctrination into life as an FBS player will be another interesting subplot to watch as Tennessee prepares for Western Carolina.

4. Don't get hurt

I think this one is pretty cut and dry.

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