Tennessee went into the game against Alabama knowing it would be relying on teenagers to anchor the right side of the line. So Don Mahoney was pleasantly surprised when freshman guard Jack Jones didn't even wait until they got to the team hotel before peppering his offensive line coach with questions regarding potential game scenarios in his first ever start.
"We land the plane in Alabama and we're heading to the hotel and he's hitting me up with questions about scenarios that he's playing through in the game in his mind, which you want everyone to think that way, but here he is as a true freshman bringing up different scenarios in the game and he's playing the game," Mahoney said. "That's what's allowing him to have the opportunity that he does right now, so he's competitive, he's smart and he's going to continue to get stronger."
Jones and his counterpart, freshman tackle Chance Hall, held down the right side of the offensive line in a gritty 19-14 loss to then-No. 8 Alabama. The two young players were thrust into duty against Georgia after injuries to Brett Kendrick and Mack Crowder and have now been handed the reins to the right side of the offensive line. The pair knew they would be starting against the Crimson Tide and had the week to prepare, which made this game much easier on them from both a mental and physical standpoint.
"This was a little bit different approaching the game because they knew they were in the position they were in as far as actually starting a game and playing," Mahoney said. "There were some things that they did well. There were some things that we needed to fix and improve on, but their overall approach is getting better and better. When you play the quality opponents that we do, they're both mature than most freshmen, so they understand and get it that, 'Hey, I thought I was prepared, but I need to prepare even that much more: film study, game plan and all that stuff."
There were some growing pains in the process, including Hall giving up the final sack that dropped Josh Dobbs and forced him to fumble to end the game, but the two played extremely well for true freshmen and have the coaching staff encouraged.
With guard Jashon Robertson back in practice but right tackle Brett Kendrick's status still undetermined for Saturday, the two might have another opportunity to log big minutes against Kentucky.
"I'm very happy with them. They'll just continue to get better," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. "They're very mature freshmen. Their approach, all their preparation, everything."
Receivers, not pass catchers
The receiving corps hasn't put up spectacular numbers this season, notching 1,447 yards for an average of 206.7 yards per game — good for No. 10 in the SEC.
But the wide receivers on the team have inserted themselves into the success of the run game by being able to block on the perimeter, something that's helped vault the Vols into becoming the No. 3 rushing offense in the league averaging 209 yards per contest.
"I think it's a great run blocking group of receivers. They take a great amount of pride in it," wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. "You can always tell a kid's football character by what they do when they don't have the ball in their hands. The people watching TV and maybe the layman and the fans don't see those guys working across the field to help Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara become the guys they're becoming. There's a lot of hard work that goes into that."
Azzanni tells his wide receivers to act like extended offensive linemen during the plays that ask his receivers to block outside the perimeter to both help the run game and open up the passing attack.
"I think that's a great testament to those guys buying in and being a team and wanting to win," Azzanni said. "That's part of playing receiver. We always say we don't want pass catchers. We want wide receivers. You have to be able to do both."
Tennessee's defensive line broke out for its most impressive game of the season against an Alabama offensive front littered with potential NFL talent. The Vols sacked Crimson Tide quarterback Jacob Coker five times, the most the defense has acquired in one game all season.
The D-line hopes to continue this dominant trend Saturday against a Kentucky front that has given up 20 sacks on the year and ranks tied for No. 11 in the SEC in sacks allowed.
The Wildcats are the No. 12 rushing offense in the country, led by Stanley 'Boom' Williams, who has accumulated 551 yards on 13 attempts per game.
"I think it's an attitude, going into another really good environment again on Saturday," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "It will be a physical game and we have to stop the run. Their running back is outstanding. He's a lateral runner in that you've got to put edges on the line of scrimmage. You can't create any seams in there with a big, physical O-line, so it's going to be a big challenge."