The Texas A&M Aggies and Tennessee Volunteers have found themselves at the epicenter of the college football world this week leading up to their top 10 showdown Saturday afternoon inside Kyle Field.
Each week we like to get an inside look at the opponent in our Know Your Foe segment. This week we talk with InsideTennessee Managing Editor Danny Parker.
Aggie Digest: Is Tennessee expected to get Darrin Kirkland or Jalen Reeves-Maybin back in time for this weekend’s game?
Danny Parker: Jalen Reeves-Maybin is out for the Texas A&M game, confirmed by coach Butch Jones on Wednesday. It's possible that Reeves-Maybin has played his final snap of college football as he needs to be concerned about being fully healthy prior to the NFL Draft in April. If healthy, the former Scout four-star prospect has potential to be selected in the first three rounds.
Darrin Kirkland Jr. is more in a wait-and-see mode. The sophomore MIKE linebacker returned to practice Tuesday but was in a walking boot and on crutches less than three weeks ago.
AD: How do you feel Tennessee cornerbacks will do against the Texas A&M receivers, provided of course that the Aggies are at full strength again with Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil back?
Parker: Not well. That's one of the weaker spots of the nine position groups. Junior corners Justin Martin and Emmanuel Moseley have been flagged for entirely too many pass interference calls, attempting to grab and cheat rather than playing the football. Martin was suspended last week for the Georgia game. Cameron Sutton injuring his ankle against Ohio was a terrible loss for this team. Freshman Baylen Buchanan has looked solid in spurts but gave up a splash play against Florida. Senior Malik Foreman returned for the Georgia game and rolled out to corner after mostly playing nickelback the previous seasons. Foreman had a solid game for the most part but quit on a 47-yard touchdown with 19 seconds to play in Athens.
Alongside Mississippi, Texas A&M may have the deepest pool of talent of any wide receiver corps in the country.
AD: The cornerbacks for the Aggies appear to be a weaker spot than the safeties in the secondary. How do you think Tennessee will look to attack the Aggies’ pass defense?
Parker: Tennessee is a run-first team. If the Aggies crowd the box and are able to contain Vols runners, Tennessee will have no choice but to put the football in the air more often. Joshua Dobbs only has a handful of 300-yard passing games in his four years as a starter but has been able to put up some serious numbers when his team needs him.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni will seek one-on-one matchups they feel they can win. Both junior Josh Malone and sophomore Jauan Jennings have come through big-time on more than a couple occasions in Tennessee's 5-0 start. Look for Dobbs to zero in on those two when the chips are on the table.
AD: Provided of course again that Myles Garrett is back healthy this week, how do you see Tennessee approaching the task of slowing down the Texas A&M pass rush?
Parker: Assuming Garrett attacks the pocket from his usual right side, that task falls upon tackle Brett Kendrick. The former Scout two-star prospect told InsideTennessee this week that he goes up against Vols end Derek Barnett often in practice, so he has experience trying to block the best of the best. Tennessee running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara have proven they can help out in pass pro but this staff doesn't double-team ends as much as some others, even against playmakers.
A&M has exceptional ability at both ends, so it will be on Dobbs to recognize pressure and get rid of the football quick. If the pocket collapses, he'll have to switch from passer to runner and get the heck out of Dodge.
AD: How is Tennessee handling the emotional swing of two straight weeks of dramatic finishes to games?
Parker: What some see as a letdown waiting to happen, others see as a confidence boost for a set of young players that carried a team to a 9-4 mark a year ago with those losses totaling a point differential of 18. Seeing the fruits of the labor is a good thing and finishing strong is something this team prides itself on. It's learning how to win and has taken upon itself to resurrect Tennessee football after the worst seven-year stretch in the history of the program, losing 47 games in that span.
Having said that, it's been tough to pinpoint why Tennessee has started so slow nearly every week (outscored 41-10 in the five first quarters). Perhaps the mental drain carries over week to week to week. It definitely isn't doing itself any favors by having to rally.