At 6-1 and 240 pounds, Darrell Hackney looks like a fullback. He also runs like a fullback. He'd probably be a fullback except for one thing: He has a rocket launcher for a passing arm.
Hackney, who physically resembles Minnesota Vikings star Daunte Culpepper, may not look the part of a quarterback but he certainly plays the part convincingly enough. He passed for 3,070 yards last year with 26 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. Those numbers got him named to 2005 preseason watch lists for the Davey O'Brien Award (which goes to the NCAA's top quarterback) and the Maxwell Award (which goes to the NCAA's premier player).
Asked if Hackney reminds him of Culpepper, Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis shrugged.
"I don't see very much pro football," he said. "I just know he's a big strong guy that can run and he's got a cannon for an arm. He's very accurate and he makes their team go."
So, the defensive key for Tennessee in Saturday's season opener is getting pressure on Hackney. Right?
"Yeah," Chavis deadpanned, "if you can tackle him. People have been able to pressure him from time to time but not put him on the ground. He's a big, strong guy that does a great job.
"If you give him time to throw the football, there's going to be openings. You don't have to apply great pressure on every snap but it has to be steady. You can't give him time to get set and feel comfortable back there."
Tennessee has new starters at three of the four secondary positions, so the defensive backs will be challenged from the get-go. Could that be a positive?
"If we're up to the challenge, yeah," Chavis said, flashing a pained grin.
Odds are, Hackney can't beat the Vols all by himself. But he may be good enough to keep the game a lot closer than the 24-point betting line suggests.
Here are some more reasons Saturday's game could be closer than you think:
1. Openers tend to be sloppy affairs, filled with mistakes that will be ironed out as the season progresses. That makes the form sheet somewhat meaningless.
2. UAB beat LSU in 2000, played Georgia to a three-point loss two years ago and whipped Mississippi State by two touchdowns last year in Starkville. The Blazers are probably on par with the Southern Miss team that held Tennessee's feet to the fire before bowing 19-16 in the 2000 opener.
3. UAB's defense probably can't stop UT but it may not have to. The Vols stopped themselves in preseason scrimmages due to a rash of penalties and turnovers. A few of each on Saturday could keep their point total low enough to make things interesting.
4. If Vol tailback Gerald Riggs gets banged up, his top backups are a 5-8 walk-on, a 270-pound fullback and two freshmen who have shown a tendency to fumble. That's hardly a settled situation.
5. Rob Smith is making his first-ever start at center two weeks after moving over from guard. A couple of bad snaps could be crucial.
6. Tennessee's pass defense ranked dead last among SEC teams in 2004 and, with new starters at three of the four secondary positions, it remains suspect heading into 2005. UT quarterbacks toasted the DBs in the first preseason scrimmage, combining for 402 passing yards. Although the yardage totals dropped in the last two scrimmages, that could be traced more to pressure by the front four than air-tight coverage by the defensive backs.
7. This is essentially the same UT defense that was shredded in four of its last five regular-season games last fall, allowing 29 points vs. South Carolina, 33 vs. Vanderbilt, 31 vs. Kentucky and 38 vs. Auburn.
On paper, Tennessee is clearly superior to the Blazers. But Hackney gives UAB an ace in the hole, or at least an ace in the pocket.