Gameday: Saturday, September 1st, 2018
Location: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
Opponent: Tennessee Volunteers
For the second time in three years, the West Virginia Mountaineers will take on a SEC team in their opening game of the season. Also for the second time in three years, that SEC team has just hired a new head coach and we have no earthly idea what to expect from the team in terms of offense, defense or their ability to read hieroglyphics.
Following the disastrous Butch Jones tenure where the Vols went 4-8 and have now lost the most recent game to every conference opponent (0-for-SEC!), Tennessee attempted to hire former Rutgers coach and current Ohio State DC Greg Schiano. When that turned into social media and real life dumpster fires, the school backtracked, took nearly a month, failed to land anyone of stature or glamor and settled on Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Pruitt is best known for not getting yelled at by Nick Saban because Pruitt’s name isn’t Lane Kiffin. Pruitt is a television star having appeared on the MTV series Two-a-days during his time at Hoover High School, where he admitted, on camera, he has never heard of asparagus.
My two young kids who only eat chicken nuggets, macaroni-and-cheese, and hot dogs know what asparagus is because they tell me every night at dinner “No I don’t want SpearGus, it looks yucky”. Come’on coach!
Ball Throwers: The Vols have hopes that third-year sophomore Jarrett Guarantano will make a leap but both he and sophomore Will McBride finished with less than 1,000 yards passing. No quarterback broke the 1,000 yard mark last year.
Tennessee did gain Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst to help push the young quarterbacks, but he also has never thrown for 1,000 yards. If the old adage is “If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have a quarterback” what does it mean when you have three and don’t have one?
It might be asking a lot for a defensive minded coach like Pruitt to turn three “passers” who have a combined 2,934 yards passing (or less than Mr Will “Heisman” Grier had in 10 games at WVU) in their career into competent passers come September. On the bright side, their combined TD-to-INT ratio is 23-9, which is better than Kansas quarterbacks can say!
Ball Runners: If you had to harbor a guess, what would you expect a defensive minded coach to do on a SEC team that struggled to win games last year? I would tell you he’s going to want to play power football and win ugly, low-scoring games. Checks the interwebz for Tennessee. True to form that is exactly what Pruitt wants to do. The Volunteers are going to employ a fullback, meaning I-formation, power it down your throat, beat you into submission and then, not be able to catch up when you are down 21-0 and have to throw the ball because all you ever worked on was hitting the guard/tackle gap at full speed behind a blocker.
The Vols have shifty back in Ty Chandler, who as a freshman carried ball 71 times. Pruitt decided the team was so stacked at running back, a team that rushed for 1,400 yards, as a team, could do without their third leading rusher, Carlin Fils-aime. They are able to gain Michigan State transfer Madre London, a 6’-1” 215 pound bruiser.
Pass Catchers: You can probably guess that the receivers on a team that didn’t have a 1,000 yard passer and only threw 11 touchdowns combined, probably don’t look good. You would be right. Sophomore Brandon Johnson, 37 receptions for 482 yards, both of which led the Volunteers last year, returns as the slot receiver. Marquez Calloway and his 24 catches for 406 yards and 5 touchdowns also returns for his junior season.
According to reports, Austin Pope’s 2 receptions and 9 yards will get first-team reps while Dominick Woods-Anderson will try to take his talents from being the #2 JUCO tight end to being the #2 tight end on the Tyson Helton offense.
Giant Protectors: The ESS-EEE-SEE has long touted its line play as the reason it is head-and-shoulders above every other conference. When push comes to shove, the offensive line can be leaned on to grind out tough yards. Unfortunately for the Volunteers, the ability to grind out yards wasn’t really present last year, as the team ranked middle of the road when it came to offensive line play, according to Football Outsiders and FootballStudyHall.
Tennessee did have a freshman All-American in Trey Smith, a five-star, 320 pound guard turned left tackle, but they didn’t have five Trey Smiths. That part could be a blessing in disguise as Smith missed spring practice for “personal health reasons”. If Smith can’t return, the Volunteers will be down their best offensive lineman. If he does return, they may be stuck trying to figure out where to play him. Chance Hall also missed time this spring as he recovered from knee surgery and K’Rojhn Calbert was limited. A unit that struggled to generate many positive yards in the run game became injury prone and thin as key players were lost.
Trench Monsters: Bringing in a coach with the pedigree of Pruitt on a team that ranked 5th in the nation on Standard Downs defense in 2017 seems like a no brainer, so Pruitt did what you would expect any coach to do and move 90% of the defensive line to offense. Given the lack of depth along the offensive line, it make sense to try and use your bodies as best you can but what that means for Tennessee is lots of inexperience.
The Volunteers can certain expect Shy Tuttle to be locked in, but Tuttle can’t be asked to do it all. That could be a problem because Tuttle only had 2.5 tackles for loss last season. It could be a hard sell trying to figure out how to stop teams when your best line player is 3-4 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
The Not David Longs: The Alabama Crimson Tide finished in the top 20 of nearly every advanced category for the defense, so Tennessee hiring the defensive coordinator from such a team should be instant improvement. However, the Tide had amazing talent all along their defensive front and as a result, they created havoc at every level. The Volunteers.....did not.
Alabama ran a 3-4 defense under Pruitt. Tennessee is expected to do the same. This means that last year’s defensive end Jonathan Kongbo, who totaled 29 stops and 2.5 sacks will now be an outside linebacker. It’s always easier to step back and rush the passer than put your hand in the ground.
Tennessee will also return their leading tackler from last year, Daniel Bituli. Bituli totaled 23 tackles against Georgia Tech, because Paul Johnson ran the ball 86 flippin times. As a team Tennessee had 134 tackles on 96 official plays. If you were near the ball, you got credited with an assisted tackle in that game.
Pass Defenders: If you take a look at the stats for Tennessee defense last year, something immediate jumps out at you. Tennessee was very good against the pass. The Vols only allowed 167 yards passing per game. Tennessee held opponents to 13 of 23 passing per game.
This was by design by head coach Butch Jones. Jones developed a defensive strategy of being so awful at run defense that teams didn’t feel the need to pass the ball. If you were to ask any Volunteer fan wearing the road cone orange glasses, they dictated that teams couldn’t pass so they ran the ball but of course we know that isn’t right. Tennessee allowed 12.7 yards per completion (84th) and 7.1 yards per attempt (54). The problem was that teams were able to gain 267 yards per game on the ground.
Five Volunteers intercepted passes last season but only two were underclassmen. We’ve already spoken about Bituli, so the other player who intercepted a pass is Nigel Warrior. The remaining secondary is rebuilt from converted running backs and safeties. It might be a tough task to ask those guys to cover the best receiving corp in the nation in their first game.
Special Teamers: Both of Tennessee’s kicking specialists have moved on from last season, so Pruitt will turn to freshman Paxton Brooks to handle the punting duties. Brooks may end up being the entire kicking unit for the Volunteers because kicker Brent Cimaglia, who split time with former kicker Aaron Medley, was only 2-of-7 on kicks beyond 40 yards last season.