KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – When Joshua Dobbs runs onto Faurot Field on Saturday night he will be just the eighth true freshman in Tennessee football history to start at quarterback.
Challenges are obviously expected for Dobbs and the Vols' offense, but wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni believes his group can help the rookie gunslinger.
"The only thing that we've talked about is understanding that he is a freshman," said Azzanni. "We have to go in there and make some plays for him. He's got a big job on his hands and we understand that, so we have to go out, make some plays and the guys will rally around that.
"But at the same time, those guys out there on the edge are pretty young too - they've at least played some - so we're focusing in on us. If we can do our job really well, we'll help him out too."
One freshman Azzanni and the offense expect to continue to make plays is Marquez North.
"I think all of our [wide receivers] are improving weekly," said Azzanni. "It's nice to see that people see the improvement out there because they are improving. There's been a lot of investment, a lot of time, and a long way to go with him, but you can see him making some plays and feeling more confident in what he can do."
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said on Wednesday that Dobbs' biggest improvements have come in his mechanics, specifically his accuracy.
However, Azzanni knows Dobbs will have his hands full and wants him to be able to lean on his skill players for help.
"Coach Bajakian talks about ball placement and making the receiver a runner, but I'll be honest he's kind of swimming with protections in terms of where everyone is going to line up and those kinds of things," said Azzanni. "He's dialed in on what he's got to do and he's just got to get it around us and we'll go make a play."
In the spirit of the World Series, Azzanni compared his group to the defense behind pitcher going for a no-hitter.
"We've been talking about having a young guy in there, making sure we help him, kind of like a pitcher going for a no-hitter," said Azzanni. "We have to make some plays for him and help him go."
Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen's challenge to his corps this week is to get off the blocks.
Not only are the Missouri wide receivers tall, they can block.
"Their receivers are as good as anybody that we have seen as far as blocking on the perimeter," said Thigpen. "You see them run the option and those guys aren't getting off blocks. They have big guys that are actually staying on and staying on the whole duration of the play. Our focus is that we have to get off the blocks. We have to get off and make plays."
Making plays is key to being able to win any game, let alone against the No. 10 team in the country, on their home turf.
"In that environment, they are a top team, one of the top teams in the country, playing against some of the best teams in the country," said Thigpen. "They have two great quarterbacks, a great run game, probably the biggest receiver corps in America. Guys that are 6-5, 6-6 and they can run, they are physical, they block probably as well as any team you are going to face."
To win, the Vols need to stick to the game plan, mind their gaps, and stick to their assignments according to Thigpen.
Again, this is nothing new for the Vols. The SEC competition this season has readied them for this moment.
"Every week somebody is going to bring their A game," said Thigpen. "Even the `average' team, they are used to the competition week-in and week-out. They see the best. If you don't come to play each week of course you are going to get embarrassed."
"The name of the game is, and Butch has been saying it all year long, is that we just have to keep improving," continued Thigpen. "Keep improving every week. That is our measuring stick, trying to get signature wins. Each week you have a focus of going in, knowing the assignments, doing your alignments and getting the job done."
STOPPING THE TWIST
The Missouri defensive front will prove to be another tough test for the veteran Tennessee O-Line.
In addition to their size and strength, the Tigers are good at another thing.
"They do a number of things with their fronts, with the twisting," said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. "With it the centers and guards get involved with the internal twist which frees up the edge."
The twisting doesn't just come in the center of the field, the Tigers like to throw twists in all over the field.
"You have one side twisting which frees up the other side," said Mahoney. "It causes discipline in collecting the twist and stopping the twist, but also it isolates some guys and they try to attack you that way."
As senior Ja'Wuan James stated on Tuesday, all five Vols on the offensive front have to be on the same page to make things work.
Mahoney believes the same to be true.
"It is all of us playing together as it would be any other week," said Mahoney, "and it is even that much greater that it is on the road and in the environment that it will be in. They are a heck of a front."
THE REPUTATION PRECEDES ITSELF
Having played at Florida and coached at South Carolina, Tennessee running backs coach Robert Gillespie is very familiar with the history, tradition and overall toughness of the Southeastern Conference.
With this experience, Gillespie knows that every single week - no matter the opponent - is going to be a battle.
"Every game in this league is tough," said Gillespie. "You are going to play a great defense every week. You are going to get every team's best. People recognize the logo on our helmets and understand the tradition of Tennessee. We are going to get the best every week."
To make sure the Vols aren't thinking about a team's reputation when they step off the bus, the coaching staff has kept the focus on Tennessee.
"We really focus on us; that's been Coach Jones' message this week," said Gillespie. "It is about us. It has been an honor and privilege to play [at Florida] and coach here at Tennessee in the SEC. We know every week we are going to get everybody's best."
With additional coaching experience in the Big 12 at Oklahoma State and West Virginia, Gillespie doesn't believe Mizzou's 2013 campaign to be a fluke. They belong in the SEC and are here to stay.
"I was in that conference and coached out there a few years and I don't think people give that conference a lot of credit," said Gillespie. "It didn't surprise me that Missouri and Texas A&M came in here and found success. They are good football teams. They have facilities in place that will allow them to come into this league and play well.
"I am not surprised but just like anything they had to get used to it - get used to the speed and tempo of it. The players have to understand some of the history like who is who. I think you hear about it, but until you are in the league, you don't understand it. They've adjusted well."
INTO THE ACTION
One Vol has been seeing more playing time as the season progresses.
John Propst, who was named Freshman All-SEC, is now in his senior season with the Vols and back in the thick of things.
"He is a smart kid," said linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. "Our signature at linebacker is that they are smart and tough. He goes out there every single week and he gives you 110 percent, so he deserves to play."
Propst, a Vol Scholar, has used his book smarts to grasp not just one linebacker position, but all.
"He knows all three positions, so I have no reservations of putting him in the football game," said Thigpen. "Either for the Mike, the Will or the Sam, if I had to put him in at the Dime position, he could do that."
"He is just one of those guys that is a joy to have in the room. He is turning himself into a really good football player.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
(On dropped passes against Alabama)
"Maddening. They're always maddening. Any drops are maddening, but I think for the most part we also made some really nice plays. It's just the way the game went. It wasn't a clean game but we also made some plays when we had to, but came out on the short end. We were playing from behind a lot too, so I think the guys were pressing a little bit. When you're young and all of a sudden you start to panic a little bit, press a little too and that's what happened."
(On the receivers' confidence after Alabama)
"I don't know if I said no one had success. I know Marquez had a really good game. He had a bunch of really good catches. We did have some success and we had some guys open too. We just weren't on the same page as far as maybe on routes we were completely open and protection broke down then the next time we protected and we didn't get open. We just weren't in sync that way.
"I think they had a good game. They're confidence is at an all-time high right now. There was improvement that you could see in that game if you take it one play at a time. There are still some good things that they did so they're pretty confident still."
(On getting Pig Howard involved)
"He was a huge part of the game plan last week, we just might not have gotten to him when we wanted to, so he's always going to be a big part of the game plan."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
(On approaching teams being battered up)
"It is late in the season. There is no one person 100 percent healthy right now. This is the time of year that teams with a lot of depth, the teams that can fight through injuries and the teams who play through a little bit of pain those are the teams that can play well right now. That is what we are so we will see how the back-ups respond once they become starters. We will how our guys who are playmakers play through injuries. If those guys play well and we stay healthy here the next four games then we have a chance at a good season."
(On carries between Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane)
"Every game takes on a life of it's own. I don't count during the game. I don't make predictions before the game. I don't make any promises. The game goes how it goes. A guy plays and gets in the rhythm when he plays a lot more. Rajion Neal is the starter. If he can play all 80 plays then he will play. If it is Marlin's turn to go in and he makes a play then he will play more, but I never count. Don't count your plays just make them. We don't care who is in the game."
(On Missouri's experience)
"Those guys have been together a long time. We talked about it as a staff and relayed the message to our players. That is a coaching staff that has been together for 12 years. Those guys understand the system. They have played together awhile. They have some seniors upfront that play together well. In this league it starts upfront and definitely with Missouri it starts with their defensive line. They do a great job. They come off the ball. They are a tough football team."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
(On Missouri's defensive line)
"It doesn't take long, you cut the film and watch their style of play. It didn't take long to watch early on starting Sunday, up until today, they are a group that gets after it. The technique part is outstanding, they have tremendous motors, we are familiar with their coaching staff having visited there two springs ago.
"Really out of respect for their entire staff, Coach Pinkel and all that he has done, we went out there to visit, we have watched what they have done, and they demand of their players. Again, their style of play and how they do it is definitely one that has caught our eyes."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
(On the Missouri running backs)
"The little guys, can jump cut. They are short, but they are big and powerful. They are 5-9, 5-10, 195-200 pounds so they are built right. But they can cut. They run a lot of zone schemes and they can cut, what we call jump cuts two or three gaps over. You have to be disciplined in your gaps, sometimes you might want to peek into somebody else's gap and that is when they will split you. For them, their scheme is good."
(On the linebackers vs. Alabama)
"Not the best performance that we have had all year, but the guy I like that competed was A.J. (Johnson), I though A.J. really got after it. He did a good job. He was sideline to sideline, he was focused in, and wasn't intimidated at all. I enjoyed the way that he played.
"Then some guys I thought folded, that wasn't their best games. The major mistake is what A.J. did that week is what some of them have done in the past. We are going to flush that one down the toilet, move on and act like that didn't happen. We address it, but in the future we can't play that type of game and expect a winning result. I am telling Sapp and Brewer this week to perform and produce."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)