Ever since January 1st, we had been waiting for that first game of the year to see what the '08 Vols were going to be like. We had the new offensive coordinator, and nobody knew what the offense was going to look like - even on the day of the game itself! We had Berry and Morley together as a safety tandem. We had solemn promises by Berry, et al., to spring Rogan for punt return touchdowns. We had the Mountain Cannon running the new offense.
We had no idea what we were going to be watching.
I'm not talking about the actual outcome of the UCLA game; that's over. Done. History. Fin. We've all had our vent and it's time to look forward. But we now have actual information as to what our team looks like. We saw them in live action, and we have lots of detailed information on them. With that, let's take a look at the different pieces of the game and get our viewing guides ready for the game.
I don't care who you are; Rudy is just awesome at this time of year. (via CappyNJ)
Start with the offense:
There's a saying that a good businessman with a great secretary is a far more effective person than a great businessman with a good secretary. Though it's the businessman that gets the glory, it's the secretary that really makes sure business is take care of. Likewise, I am a firm believer that the offense starts and ends with the line play. The less you hear of the linemen on the broadcast, the better they're doing. Stellar line play can also hide many defects in the "skill" players, often rendering high-end talent unnecessary. So though the O-line usually gets underreported, I will start there first.
The big question of the line was: how will they handle the flipping-line concept? Short answer: beautifully. Though Crompton had a bad tendency to hold the ball for too long, he was only sacked once (another was nullified by a penalty and many hurries happened, but it would have been a lot worse with a bad line). UCLA sent nearly every blitz in their book at the Vols, and they nearly all failed. Even the overload blitzes, which sent more men on one side than UT had linemen, usually didn't work.
What to watch for: On pass plays, watch for blitz pickups. In particular, watch how the tackles handle edge rushers. If there was any weakness, it was edge rushing on linebacker stunts. On run plays, watch to see how quickly they can transition from double team blocks to the second level. If the double-teamer can get a good chip and barrel down on the linebacker while keeping his balance, we'll be in good shape.
It's a joy to have 4 running backs in the backfield. We've only really seen two - Foster and Hardesty - but we have the depth necessary in case of injury. My theory on running backs is that they're the most fungible players on the field; if one gets injured, the next one has a shorter trainup curve than for any other position. But having crisp, strong runners is essential, and I think we have that. Given their limited number of carries, Foster and Hardesty averaged around 6 yards per carry in the first game, which is a terrific mark.
What to watch for: On pass plays, watch for blocking assignments. I don't anticipate many passes to running backs; we won't need them and there's no need to show them to Florida. But watch how fast they read the rush package and how well they position themselves for the correct block on the extra rusher. On run plays, watch their decisiveness and authority. Are they running into the hole, or are they dancing into it? Do they run like they own the field, or are they too busy looking for the 'perfect' running lane. Running is a dirty business; looking for a clean route is usually a waste of time and results in lost yardage.
We have a good set of receivers. They're names you're not going to hear about on national shows or commercial sports websites, but they know their jobs and they are reliable. That's going to be huge for Crompton; he should be confident that he and his receivers are on the same page. Miscommunication and running incorrect routes cause both lost downs and interceptions; these receivers should be savvy enough to avoid those problems.
What to watch for: On pass plays, assuming that the TV actually lets you see the route running, look for decisiveness. Are they making their turns at the last second, or are they leaning into them and giving the routes away? When the ball is snapped, do they run the route like they're the #1 receiver (even when they're not)? Do they block downfield? On run plays, watch for blocking. It's a temptation to take a breather on a run play. If the run isn't to their side of the field, do they run ahead of the play to help? Also, watch for Brandon Warren. See if he's used a lot, or if maybe they're saving his plays for the next week.
In our minds, we still compare Crompton to Ainge. Last year, Ainge had a lot of gametime experience and had a good command of the offense on the field. Thanks to injuries, he wasn't a downfield threat, but he was a smart quarterback on the field. Crompton is more of a risk-taker - both by personality and by offensive design. That'll open the door for bigger plays and force the defense to play more honestly, but it'll also open the door for interceptions and sacks. You have to take the up with the down and wait to see if the net balance is better for the risk.
What to watch for: On pass plays, count the seconds. If he's holding the ball for over 4 seconds and throwing 10 yards, start screaming. UAB shouldn't be able to pose a credible rush threat, so he'll be tempted to hang onto the ball for too long. He needs to show that he'll play smart football now, when the pressure is off. If he doesn't get that now, he won't have it when Florida comes in and a much, much better pass rush comes in. On run plays, watch for little things. Does he telegraph the draw run too early? Can you tell if it's a run or pass by the way he acts before the snap?
Now for the defense:
I want this defense! (photo by indywriter)
Some people were unhappy with the D-line in the first game because of the lack of pressure on Craft. The problem was that Craft was doing his best Ainge imitation and throwing the ball on the third step on nearly every play in the second half. Because they were sustaining their drives, UCLA had a significant advantage in the number of plays in the second half and began to tire the defense by the end of the game. So don't be too hard on them; remember that in the first half, their pressure was a large part of the 4 interceptions. This is a good unit. Watch them in the fourth quarter to see how their stamina is holding up.
What to watch for: On pass plays, watch the first step. Are they getting up faster than the O-line after the snap? If the pass is complete, do they pursue? If it's a screen play, does somebody read it in time to turn back and cover the running back? On run plays, watch the first step. (Yes, again.) Usually, the faster, more explosive lineman will win a line battle; he can dictate the rules of engagement and get leverage. On sweeps and edge plays, are they pursuing? Does the backside defensive end keep his position to break up a potential reverse, or does he get overexcited and overpursue? It's not all brute force on the line; are they thinking too?
This is my little pet question: how will Chavis deploy the linebackers on Saturday? I'll be bluntly honest; there's no need to send them in to blitz, either for run or pass plays. The line is good enough to handle that on their own. That having been said, I'd like to see a few blitzes. I want to see some aggressive schemes for the LBs. Smart, read-the-play football is good (and I hope they keep it up), but I want to see that killer instinct, Fear-of-the-Apocalypse linebacker play that UT has been known to have. Killer Instinct. That's what I want from the defense overall.
What to watch for: On pass plays, watch the read. Can they figure out where the ball is going before the pass is away? Do they account for the running back sneaking out of the backfield? On run plays, also watch the read. How fast to they key in? Are they too aggressive, and taking themselves out of the play on play-action? As a bonus, does Chavis ever turn them loose? Oh, watch for Gerald Williams. Hopefully he gets some good work in; we'll need him. Memorize his number now (57) and avoid the rush.
I prefer to count the safeties and corners as a single unit. But unfortunately, you probabaly won't get to see much of them on TV, thanks to the obsession of centering the camera on the QB (and showing a bunch of blank deep backfield). Still, there's a lot to look for here. We know how good they're supposed to be; here are a few things to key in on when the cameras bless you with a peek at the secondary.
What to watch for: On pass plays, watch the coverage. How much zone do they run? Do they get a chance to play man coverage? Do they bump the receivers at the line? UT should overmatch UAB here, so it's a great chance for Chavis to give them some live-action practice at different coverage schemes. On run plays, watch for their reads. Do they sense the play early? How well do they fight through the receivers' blocks? Do they pick smart angles to the play? Do they watch out for play fakes, like flea-flickers and halfback passes? With their range and speed, they don't need to push too hard to get to the play.
Oh, and watch for the interceptions and bonecrushing hits. You know they're coming. :-D
Not this defense! (photo by yngrich)
Finally, the Special Teams
I'll keep this short; let's just hope our special teams play isn't "special". If UAB wins this battle, we're in for some pain next weekend. But watch the blocking setups on punt returns; are they anticipating Rogan's best running lanes? Watching the blocking on punts; 'nuff said. When UAB punts, are we trying to block or are they in safe mode? Should UAB attempt a field goal or (shudder) an extra point, how much effort does UT put into the play? Are they really trying to block the kick, or are they going through the motions?
There you go. Enjoy the game, but if you remember, key in on a field unit for a few plays and see what they do. You know the strengths and the weaknesses, let's see how the team has progressed in two weeks. UT outmatches UAB across the board; the important thing to watch is how crisp they play. Are they taking the game for granted, or are they playing as if a BCS game is riding on it?