A new feature this year at Rocky Top Talk: each week our writing staff will give you our picks for the most important player of the week for the Vols. Agree or disagree with our choices? As always, leave your thoughts in the comments.
WEEK 1 - Tennessee vs Utah State
Will Shelton - Marquez North
With so many unknowns on both sides of the ball for Tennessee, I'm going with the x-factor from last season. Marlin Lane is Tennessee's most experienced offensive player and Jalen Hurd is its most promising newcomer, but behind that offensive line against that defensive front I'm not sure how much success the running game is going to have. A.J. Johnson is Tennessee's most experienced defensive player but chasing around Chuckie Keeton will not be his specialty, and I'm not sure any of us know whose it will be.
But the biggest advantage the Vols will have in this game is their wide receivers against Utah State's secondary, and Marquez North has the best chance to create a mismatch on the field. North was ridiculous last year, both for a freshman and for Tennessee's only downfield option. We do not beat South Carolina without him. Now as a sophomore, and hopefully with additional threats who can take some of the attention off him, he should be on track for an even more successful season. We've seen mismatches with wide receiver vs defensive back work tremendously to Tennessee's advantage in season openers before (Robert Meachem vs Cal, Cordarrelle Patterson vs NC State) and be true game-changers. If such a thing is going to occur Sunday night, I think Marquez North is the most likely suspect to have a big game and can be the biggest difference between Tennessee and Utah State.
Chris Pendley - Cameron Sutton
Chuckie Keeton's good, but he's got to have someone to throw the ball to. Sutton was impressive his freshman season and will likely be rewarded with a few island assignments. Utah State returns Keeton and only a couple of skill position guys beyond him; however, both those guys--JoJo Nelson and Ronald Butler--are pretty decent. Of the two, Nelson is the known quantity.
Last year, Vanderbilt was able to open up Jordan Matthews to have a productive game against Sutton pretty much entirely on screens and short passes. Can Sutton be put in better spots to deal with this than he was last year--or at least can he get some shade support? (Of note: Matthews struggled downfield vs. Sutton. I can't imagine Nelson or Butler would fare better.) If Sutton's man is a non-starter, Keeton gets caught in a tricky spot where he pretty much needs to win the game on his own.
Not that he's incapable of doing that, mind. But it gets a lot harder when he only has one known weapon available to him, and we need to know sooner rather than later if Sutton can duplicate his stellar freshman year.
Hunter Turner - Mack Crowder
Someone has to make sure the ball ends up in the hands of the Vols' playmakers, and much maligned senior quarterback Justin Worley will get first crack at the job. For better or worse, Worley is a known quantity, but he won't be able to reach even modest expectations of competence if his offensive line is a mess. Crowder has been the face of the new-look offensive line all year, making a trip to SEC media days over Worley and fellow offensive lineman Marcus Jackson, and he needs to live up to his potential to meet the physical and mental challenges of Utah State's unconventional defensive front.
If Crowder can diagnose the defensive alignment, make the correct protection calls, and deliver the football cleanly, Tennessee's wide receivers and running backs will make mincemeat out of the minor league Aggies' defensive backs. If Crowder fails to read his keys, lets the offensive line devolve into chaos, or turns the ball over with a bad snap, all of the skill position talent in the world won't save the Vols.
In the spring game, Crowder bullied his way into an impressive ground game performance against the first team Tennessee defensive line, switching between single and double team blocking with ease and sometimes handling a defensive tackle one-on-one. At just shy of 290 pounds, he already outweighs all but two of Utah State's defensive linemen, and he's only a KFC family bucket away from the other two. If Crowder can handle any of the AAA Aggies' linemen by himself, it will go a long way toward easing the strain on true freshman Jashon Robertson.
Kid Bourbon: Justin Worley
I am neither the President nor CEO of the Justin Worley Fan Club. I know this. You know this. Freaking Marsellus knows this! And freaking Marsellus also knows that I actively dislike the term "game manager" as applied to QBs because I know this is just something you say about a QB who has no real weapons. And if we're being quite candid, Justin Worley has no real weapons. But he has weapons around him, and he can be an asset to this offense, and help team 118 secure it's first win of the season, by putting the artillery around him in a position to go medieval on dat Aggie.
How does he do this? Well, again, because he's not the one to cripple a defense with his right arm, I'm going to answer this question in the negative. He puts his artillery in a position to go medieval on dat Aggie by doing, with perfect execution, all of the things that he *can* do. This means no worm burners. This means no comments from Gary Danielson about how the pass was too poorly thrown to be intercepted. This means no indecision at the line of scrimmage either before or after the ball has been snapped.
How does Justin Worley get the ball to his receivers if his offensive line isn't able to hold off the oncoming rush? By getting the ball out quickly. How does Justin Worley set up the pass when the opposing front seven might just be stout enough to not allow for "running to set up the pass" to be a viable option? By setting up the pass with the pass. By borrowing a page from the Peyton Manning playbook and taking what the defense gives him until the defense no longer gives it to him. And when the defense no longer gives him that something, take something else. Rinse. Lather. Repeat.
Basically, I need Justin Worley to perfectly manage the game. He doesn't have to be a weapon; just a part of the mass destruction machinery that goes medieval on dat Aggie.
Joel Hollingsworth: The Kicker
Whether it's Bullock or Medley, the guy lining up for field goals may be the difference in the game. None of us really wants to believe that the Tennessee program is currently hovering right around the same level in the pecking order as Utah State, and yet all of us are reluctantly acknowledging that this game could be much closer than we want it to be. (Or we could, you know, actually lose.) If it's close, somebody's foot is going to matter. Quick, somebody do some research on Utah State's field goal kicker.
Incipient_Senescence: Pig Howard
Although popular due to his lightning quickness and excellent nickname, Pig Howard wasn't actually all that effective last season. While he had the most catches, his 5.1 yards per target were the lowest among Vols receivers, behind the likes of Josh Smith, Cody Blanc, and Jacob Carter. And his catch rate, under 60%, was far from ideal for a slot receiver. For the past two years, Utah State has had a front seven that looked suspiciously unlike a mid-major unit. They stop the run, and they get to the quarterback. Yes, their secondary is weak. Yes, Tennessee has a deep threat. But if Justin Worley is going to stay on his feet long enough to hit the deep threat, the Vols are going to have to take the pressure off with some quick-hitters. All reports indicate that Pig has been putting in the work this summer and is prepared to be the man in the slot. He may not need to be electric in the opener, but he needs to be reliable.
Who you got?