KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The young Tennessee defense stood tall on Sunday night against a talented Utah State offense. Now, the Vols have to duplicate the feat against the up-tempo style that Arkansas State will bring into Neyland Stadium.
The “Orange Swarm” defense surrendered 244 yards to the Aggies, a team that averaged over 400 yards per game in 2013, while holding them to 11 first downs.
"I was very pleased," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "I thought the kids did an outstanding job for the amount of freshmen that played in that game and what they were able to handle."
Utah State used a variety of formations and personnel groups to try and confuse the Vols up front, but Jancek said that did not rattle his unit.
"They threw the kitchen sink at them and I thought our guys did a really good job of handling that," he said. "Now, the challenge against Arkansas State will be the tempo and the communication and the stress that they create on a defense. It's a different challenge, but it's an exciting one.
Arkansas State piled up 558 yards and 23 first downs in its season opener, led by dual-threat quarterback Fredi Knighten. The junior making his first regular-season start accounted for 368 yards of total offense in the 37-10 win over Montana State
Knighten threw for 219 yards and a touchdown on 19-29 passing, ran the ball 15 times for 104 yards and caught a pass on a trick play from wide receiver Tres Houston for a 45-yard gain.
ASU ran 78 plays in its opener, going with an up-tempo look that will challenge the focus and the conditioning of the UT defense.
"The things that they do on offense stem from their pace, their tempo that they're always pushing," Jancek said. "They snap the ball quickly, they get lined up quickly, so it's kind of a frantic-looking offense. A lot of the things they're trying to accomplish stems from their tempo."
MAHONEY'S GAME PLAN FOR O-LINE
With the announcement of starting left tackle Jacob Gilliam’s season-ending knee injury this week, offensive line coach Don Mahoney is now faced with preparing his young lineman for potential big opportunities. While unfortunate for Gilliam, the situation presents a chance for some individuals to step up and into a starting role - and do it quickly.
"It was tough to take the other day," Mahoney said of Gilliam's injury. "I've been doing this long enough and it's very unfortunate but you know, it's [a situation] in which guys have got to step up and sure enough, they're needing to be counted on sooner than we expected."
Among the candidates for Gilliam's hard-earned tackle spot, redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick and junior Dontavius Blair continue to compete with true freshman Coleman Thomas and show tremendous strides despite their lack of game experience. Upon witnessing Gilliam's injury on Sunday, Mahoney called on Kendrick to play against Utah State and according to the offensive line coach, he did not disappoint.
"He's been the guy that's been pretty steady for us," Mahoney said. "So, when that happened, there was a plan in place and he responded and did some good things."
While Kendrick's consistency of play and speed are encouraging, Mahoney also praised Blair for his recent fundamental improvements. For his size, Blair has made huge strides in off-the-line speed and hand placement but needs more repetitions to build confidence.
"His hands have gotten better," Mahoney said of Blair. "To some people it's a little thing but it's a huge thing for us, seeing those strides that are being made. And Thomas is really - particularly at the level and the speed of it - getting an understanding of it. It's becoming something like what you'd expect it to be like for a baseball shortstop with ground balls to first, when you're doing it over and over and over. His confidence is getting greater, so that's been a huge plus."
Entering Saturday's game against Arkansas State, Mahoney reiterated the importance of evaluation at this point, as the tackle position is once again become an open competition for Team 118.
"Some people think, `Well it's Thursday. The hay is in the barn and we're ready to play.' No, we still have Thursday and Friday of preparation," Mahoney added. "I always look at it that way. I know we do as a team, but also particularly as a unit, that there are always things that we have to be prepared for and we'll see how they respond. Over the course of the next few days, we'll see the way that they responded to some of the challenges in practice today."
BAJAKIAN BREAKS DOWN THE OFFENSE
After a solid offensive start to the season, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian realizes that there is still room for improvement. As the team prepares for Arkansas State, the team must prepare themselves for yet another highly-experience defensive group.
Maintaining a fast tempo is one thing that Bajakian wants to continue improving on. Against Utah State, the team performed at its fastest rate since he began coaching the Vols with the ball being snapped 48 times in the first half alone and 76 times through three quarters.
"That's as fast as we've moved since I have been here," said Bajakian. "We want to snap the ball with more than 20 seconds on the play clock and we were able to do that 20 times."
The run-game was an area the offensive coordinator is seeking improvement.
In analyzing the efficiency of the run game, Bajakian counts an efficient run as anything more than four yards or the distance required to earn a first down. To improve the running game, which was not particularly at its best against Utah State, the team has been practicing some of the fundamentals of the rush game.
"We talk about getting more than the play is designed for," Bajakian said. "We can go out and get any running back or receiver that can catch the ball and get tackled. The difference makers are the guys that can break tackles or make people miss. We stress that all the time, learning how to run after the catch and how to run at the second level."
Bajakian says it's a matter of better technique and improving foot work and being more consistent with reads. Despite that, there were positives such as the touchdown runs from Alton Howard and Jalen Hurd, all individuals who broke tackles and made the defense miss.
In the pass game, Bajakian believes that there must be improvement with throws down the field. This week, those deep passes have been emphasized.
Even with incompletions down the field, starting quarterback Justin Worley did everything the staff asked from him.
"Justin did exactly what we asked," said Bajakian. "First and foremost, not turning over the ball is critical. When you turn the ball over, I don't care how well or poorly you're doing offensively, you have a chance to win, so walking out of that game with zero turnovers was great not just for Justin for our offense. He managed the football game."
Knowing what to improve on is just the first part, Bajakian has been preparing the offense for a sound and experienced defensive unit out of Arkansas State for this upcoming Saturday.
"They're very sound schematically," Bajakian said. "They play disciplined football. They're experienced in the back end. They have two preseason all-conference defensive backs. They're a physical group.
"They know how to play the game. They do their job well."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)