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Alabama Football vs Tennessee Preview: When the Volunteers have the Ball

The Volunteers put up 52 points on Alabama last season, but this is a completely different team

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

In the third year of the Jeff Heupel tenure at Tennessee, we all pretty much know what to expect of the Tennessee offense at this point: the wide receivers are going to be lined up basically on the sidelines every play, they’re going to throw a whole lot of WR screens, and they’re going to run a billion inside zone runs with the occasional QB keeper to keep you honest.... All the while, they’re going to be doing their best to snap the ball within 9 seconds of the previous play ending.

For what it’s worth, it’s an offensive scheme that I have my doubts about the longevity of (and I am fully accepting they put up 52 points on Alabama with it last year). The offense relies heavily on the wide receivers making perimeter blocks before the screen passes are thrown, and if the defense starts to cheat towards that, they can either run the ball with all of the extra space, or throw the sideline go-ball with guys faking the downfield block.

For one, it’s a scheme that’s not viable in the NFL for multiple reasons (most notably, the downfield blocking on screens is offensive pass interference in the NFL rulebook, but not in college), and ultimately I think that will hurt their recruiting at WR. But I also think it’s a limited scheme that only has a couple of fairly predictable constraint plays built off of the same two staples, and those staple plays require WRs to win a whole lot of blocks, or the running back to keep breaking tackles after the first 3 yards.

They take advantage of corners who aren’t used to shedding blocks, and then make the defense pay for trying to move other central players around to help out soooo far on the outside.

Eventually, I think opposing DCs will be able to get their corners ready to win those matchups on the outside, and I’m not sure this offensive scheme has a counterpunch to that.

Or maybe I’m just a hater... Could always be possible.

In any case, Heupel’s longtime OC, Alex Golesh got his first head coaching job at USF this year, so Alabama’s defense already got a taste of this same offense against the Bulls earlier this year. In his place, Joey Halzle was promoted up from QB coach to OC. Halzle has been coaching with/under Heupel ever since he graduated from Oklahoma in 2009, so there is truly no change in the scheme.

With all of that said, Tennessee went from leading the entire country with 46 points per game in 2022 to a more middling 37th with 33.5 points per game in 2023. The biggest driver of this is the fact that 6th year senior QB Hendon Hooker finally was forced to move on to the NFL, while the speedy Biletnikoff winner Jalin Hyatt and sideline deep ball threat Cedric Tillman both also moved on to the pros.

It was a crazy amount of production, seniority, and speed with that trio, and replacing it has proved difficult for the Vols.

In their place, QB Joe Milton has been underwhelming. At only 212 passing yards per game, 6.9 yards per attempt, and a 61.5% completion rate (really low, considering how much it gets boosted by freebie screen pass completion), things just haven’t been smooth. Milton has a massive arm and can really sling it deep, but something has just been off between him and the receivers in the timing-based passing game.

At wide receiver, Bru McCoy is the linebacker-sized WR who should be the guy to make the offense tick as a perimeter blocker and sideline go-ball guy, but he broke his ankle in week 5, and is out for the season. Meanwhile, Squirrel White is the small, speedy replacement for Hyatt, and he leads the team with 305 yards. However, White has barely been able to get anywhere deep, and has mostly just been the dedicated screen guy this year.

Ramel Keyton is a 6’3” 5th year senior who is the team’s main deep threat. He averaged 18.1 yards per catch for 562 yards in 2022, and is right on that pace again this year at 16.4 yards per catch and 230 yards.

TEs Jacob Warren and grad transfer McCallan Castles round out the receiving group with a combined 17 catches and 4 touchdowns.

Where the passing game has dropped off, though, the rushing attack has really picked up the slack. The crew is averaging 231 yards per game on 5.9 yards per attempt. Jaylen Wright returns for his 3rd year, and has only improved in each season. He’s got the team lead with 571 yards on a ridiculous 7.1 yards per carry. Wright is a smart, powerful runner who, for a 200 pound guy, can really drag defenders for an extra 3-4 yards and keep churning forward in a huge pile all game long. Wright’s got excellent vision behind the line of scrimmage and knows how to stutter step to setup defenders on the wrong sides of gaps in the zone running scheme.

The other guy in the one-two punch is Jabari Small, who’s a bit more chaotic and plays more like a cannon ball that just got launched straight into the gut of the line. The senior actually had more touches than Wright in 2021 and 2022, but seems to have finally lost his 1A to become the 1B after three straight seasons of the same two players.

Finally, sophomore Dylan Sampson is getting his own fair share of the rushing load. He’s only 190 pounds, but has been clocked at 23.0 MPH and runs a 4.32 forty, so the dude can absolutely fly. He’s only got 45 carries, but leads the team with 6 rushing TDs.

This will be a really interesting matchup for the Alabama defense. Terrion Arnold has consistently proven to be an absolute menace at outside corner when teams try to throw screen passes to his side, so I think that by itself really tilts things in favor for the Tide right off the bat.

Without the screens as readily available, it’s hard to see Joe Milton having a whole lot of success passing the ball unless it’s just on busted coverages or something dumb like that.

Where things will be decided, though, is on the run game. Alabama’s interior has seemed to be much improved at defending the run after a poor showing in 2022. Tim Keenan, Jaheim Oatis, and Justin Eboigbe are tasked with pretty much the most important matchup of the game: clog up those inside zone runs... And do it every single play at hyper speed. As long as they can keep up the interior push to a stalemate, the Alabama linebackers should be able to clean up and limit the rushing the damage.

I think the Tennessee rushing attack is too good to just totally shut it down, but limiting the damage while maintaining the outside WR coverage without busts should do plenty to keep the Vol offense from doing too much damage. Lets go with 27 points for Tennessee in this one.