Northwestern's offense isn't the most creative, most explosive or most versatile unit Tennessee will have faced in 2015. Under head coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats lean heavily on the run, averaging nearly 47 rushing attempts per game behind sophomore Justin Jackson.
In the air, Fitzgerald's team simply tries to limit its mistakes and not turn the ball over. Northwestern gave two quarterbacks extended time under center during the regular season in Clayton Thorson and Zack Oliver, who combined for eight touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2015. The Wildcats aren't exactly offensive juggernauts, but they may provide a unique challenge for Tennessee. The Vols may be forced to play a lot of base 4-3 formations on the defensive end due to Northwestern's power run game, something defensive coordinator John Jancek said he's ready for as he prepares his unit for battle Jan. 1.
Freshman Austin Smith serves as the Vols' third linebacker in the formation, and his emergence coupled with previous base set formations against similar offensive teams like Missouri and Vanderbilt gives Tennessee confidence facing a similar style of play.
"We're going to have the ability to do both. I'm comfortable with a three linebacker base set," Jancek said. "It's going to be based a lot too on what they're doing. It's almost like a first game. You have so much time and preparation for a bowl. It's really like a first game of the year. They can change things. They can do different things. There's a whole season that you pull plays from as a defensive coach that kind of can drive you crazy, but you're going to have to adjust again on game day."
While Jancek pores over every new wrinkle the Wildcats might throw his way to give themselves a better chance offensively, he's found himself a young rock in the middle of his base set with freshman Darrin Kirkland. The Indianapolis native inserted himself this season as the heir apparent to Jalen Reeves-Maybin in Tennessee's line of great linebackers and has made life easier for his defensive coordinator in the process.
"He takes such great pride, in not only knowing the middle linebacker position, but also trying to learn (weakside linebacker), what the safeties are doing, where's the defensive end fitting on all these plays," Jancek said. "He just has a real hunger for the knowledge of, not just his position, but of the entire defense. That's what you need. He's made great progress from Day One. He takes great, great pride in being the middle linebacker. He wears it as a badge of honor."
Work and Play
This may be a business trip for Tennessee, but there are times when it certainly won't feel like work.
On top of two practices, countless meetings and a team walk-through on Dec. 31, the Vols will have their plates full — both literally and figuratively — as they balance a schedule of fun peppered in with the work grind. Both teams went bowling together Sunday night and are guests of honor at the Tampa Bay Lightning's Monday matchup with the Montreal Canadians at Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa Monday night.
Tennessee heads to Busch Gardens Tuesday for a day of safari animals and roller coasters and will hit Clearwater Beach Thursday for some relaxing fun in the sun. But despite the jam-packed schedule, the Vols haven't struggled with finding a happy medium between work and play.
"I don't think so, because really, this is no different than them coming to meetings, going to practice and then going to study table that night or studying or whatever they may be doing," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. "They've got routines and here they've got a routine. It really hasn't been a problem at all. They've done a really great job of focusing in at meetings and at practice."
Butch Jones wants his team's practices in Tampa to mirror the conditions of game time as closely as possible. This isn't a new or novel idea, but it's one Jones appreciates and understands as he looks to get his players' bodies acclimated to the scorching Florida heat and the noon kickoff time.
On Monday, the Vols practiced at noon in 86 degree weather, but the coaching staff won't be taking it easy on their team because of the heat.
"My approach with the guys is hey, we need to push ourselves in practice, especially early when you get down here," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "Obviously you've got to taper off and let them get their legs back and all that. My emphasis is we can't control the weather. We can't control the humidity. It's the same for both teams, so let's do what we need to do to prepare and then go out and play."
The Vols' extensive strength and conditioning program covers hydration and rehabiliation from the heat, which helps the players recover faster after tough workouts under the sun.
"We've done a great job of hydrating them and this is part of our program is handling this," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. "I think our kids have done a great job. Our strength and conditioing and training staff have done a great job of pushing liquids and all the recovery things that we do."
Have the players enjoyed working out in the Sunshine State humidity as much as the coaches?
"Yes, they have," Jancek quipped. "I know some of them have said they want to move to Tampa."