Keys to the game

The Tennessee defense that takes the field in today's 12:21 opener at Neyland Stadium has a glaring lack of size but an abundance of speed.

The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers hope to exploit both. They'll try to take advantage of the size shortage by running right at the Big Orange. They'll try to manipulate the speed by using misdirection plays that get the Vols flying ... but to the wrong side of the field.

Except for nose tackles Dan Williams (6-3, 327) and Montori Hughes (6-4, 312), the guys who fill out Tennessee's front seven are undersized. Wes Brown (6-4, 270) and Andre Mathis (6-2, 280) are small by tackle standards. Gerald Williams (6-4, 248), Chris Walker (6-3, 232), Steven Fowlkes (6-4, 229), Ben Martin (6-3, 239) and Willie Bohannon (6-2, 230) are lightweights by end standards. The linebackers - Nick Reveiz (5-10, 220), Rico McCoy (6-1, 220) and LaMarcus Thompson (6-1, 221), Greg King (6-3, 205), Herman Lathers (6-1, 213) and Savion Frazier (6-2, 221) - aren't exactly robust, either.

Tennessee will try to offset its lack of size with speed but that can be exploited, too, via reverses and other misdirection plays. The Vols could be more susceptible to reverses in 2009 than in years past because of a change in how they utilize their defensive ends.

End-turned-tackle Wes Brown put it this way: "Instead of playing the backside technique - waiting for the reverse - they can crash down the line and cut the running back off from the back side."

That's a great strategy, of course, if the end cuts off the running back. If he fails, however, a big gain is likely.

Another way to exploit a swarming defense is by utilizing a mobile quarterback. And, yes, the Hilltoppers have a mobile quarterback in Brandon Smith. Discounting lost yardage due to sacks, he rushed for 81 yards in 2008. He also had a 73-yard touchdown run in the spring game.

Smith is no Tim Tebow but the 6-0, 200-pound senior is dangerous enough that UT head coach Lane Kiffin notes that the Toppers' attack has "a lot of Florida in it," adding: "Any time you have a running quarterback who can move around like this guy can playing the spread, it can be really difficult."

Just as Tennessee's defense must not overreact to misdirection, Tennessee's offfense must not overreact to what promises to be a fever-pitch atmosphere at Neyland Stadium. With 105,000 fans screaming at the top of their lungs, freshman tailbacks Bryce Brown and David Oku, along with rookie receivers Nu'keese Richardson, Marsalis Teague and Zach Rogers, will be hard-pressed to keep their poise and focus.

Tennessee will simplify things a bit when frosh are in the lineup but quarterback Jonathan Crompton says he will not hesitate to audible to a different play on occasion, no matter how many rookies may be on the field.

"If I've got to check I've got to check," he said. "If they're on the field they know what they're doing. They've earned that spot to be out there. So, if I have to check that's what's going to happen."


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