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Most Important Vol: Arkansas State

Our writing staff shares their weekly picks for the most important player of the week...

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

In the season opener all of us missed on A.J. Johnson, who clearly took the game ball with nine tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble in Tennessee's stout defensive performance against Utah State.  Some of our other picks weren't too far off though:

  • Will:  Marquez North - North was fine, with four catches for 38 yards, but was not the dominant threat I thought he would be.  The Vols missed going downfield on every opportunity, but North also simply wasn't targeted so much more than any other Vol WR.  This is good for passing balance, but bad for my assumption North would be a stand-out superstar in this passing game, at least for one week.
  • Chris:  Cam Sutton - An interception and a slew of one-on-one tackles for Sutton, helping shut down Utah State's offense completely.  If this was hockey, I think Cam Sutton would have earned the third star of the night against the Aggies.  Good work by Chris.
  • Hunter:  Mack Crowder - The offensive line was clearly an issue, though less so in the interior.  The Vols gave up two sacks early but then kept Justin Worley relatively safe the rest of the night.
  • KidB:  Justin Worley - A silver medal performance from Worley in victory, which was a happy sight for all involved.  27 of 38 for 273 yards, 7.2 YPA, three touchdowns and no interceptions.  We'll take that every week, and since we didn't get it every week from Worley last year, this was an especially pleasing performance.  Good choice by the kid.
  • Joel:  The Kicker - Clearly important, though not always in good ways.  Aaron Medley badly shanked his first field goal attempt, but rebounded to give the Vols a crucial three possession lead going into the locker room.  Kicker will be a safe pick throughout the year.
  • I_S:  Pig Howard - Led the way, just like last year, with six catches for 37 yards, adding a rushing touchdown.  Considering we weren't sure if he'd be on the roster, his return to regular production right away was a welcome sight as well.
Here are our choices for Arkansas State:

Will Shelton - Jalen Reeves-Maybin

More than one-third of Tennessee's tackles last week came from A.J. Johnson (9) and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who went out briefly with an injury scare and still led the team in tackles with 10.  Arkansas State will provide a slightly different threat at quarterback with Fredi Knighten than what we saw from Chuckie Keeton; Knighten ran for 104 yards against Montana State and has picked up 302 yards on the ground in his last four full-game appearances.  A.J. Johnson will continue to be the leader defensively, but even more this week the Vols will need the athletic JRM to make plays to keep a dangerous quarterback from hurting us.  His play suggests we're talking about a productive multi-year answer at a position the Vols are still very thin at; we weren't sure if he would be able to hold off Dillon Bates coming into camp, but Sunday night he clearly did a lot more than that.  JRM will be a big part of limiting what the other team wants to do once again this week.

Kid Bourbon - Jalen Hurd

The running game was just not where it needed to be against Utah State.  Granted, we tended to use the short passing game as a quasi running game -- long handoffs, essentially -- but at some point in the year we're going to have to have a situation where we know we're going to run, the other team knows we're going to run, and freaking Marsellus knows we're going to run, and then we pick up five yards anyway.  Also, I'm just not confident that Marlin Lane is really that good.  So I want to see Jalen Hurd become a man right before our eyes sooner rather than later.  We saw him do it with a nifty catch and run against Utah State, but I want to see some of it from an actual handoff rather than a long handoff.

And, yes, I know our offensive line isn't any good, and that the running game is a big ask when your offensive line isn't any good.  So I'm asking a big ask.  Jalen: make the offensive line look better.  That's all I'm asking.

Chris Pendley - Cam Sutton

Back to the well again, I know. However: Fredi Knighten aside, JD McKissic is the guy on the Arkansas State offense to worry about. He's a short, tough-to-take-down type of guy who'll get a bunch of extended handoffs and serve as WR #1. If this sounds like Arkansas State's going to run 14 screens to Sutton's side, you're on to something.

So it's on Sutton to hold McKissic in check. The front seven will have their hands mostly full with Knighten; can Sutton take McKissic without compromising that coverage? If he can, this game starts to look a lot like last week.

Incipient_Senescence - Brett Kendrick

[insert cliche about units and weakest links]. It would be awesome if the talented Dontavius Blair suddenly became all he was supposed to be and took over at left tackle, but we've seen no indication of that happening. The fact is, when UT's starting left tackle went down for the season, it was Kendrick who replaced him. Unless something changes in the next five days, Kendrick will probably get his first start of his Tennessee career at left tackle on Saturday. He's a redshirt freshman, so he doesn't have the experience of Crowder, Jackson, and Kerbyson. And he doesn't have the raw physical ability of Robertson. But he's going to be called upon, and he needs to deliver. He doesn't have to be a star, but he can't be a weakness for the Red Wolves to exploit.

Hunter Turner - Ethan Wolf

So here's the thing about the Arkansas State game: Butch said in his Tuesday presser that he expects to field a completely different offense against the Red Wolves from what we saw on Sunday. Since the Utah State gameplan involved quick passes (to get the ball out of the QB's hands quickly), option/rollout runs (to move the point of release), and packaged run/pass plays (to slow the defensive line and take advantage of a suspect secondary), I'd expect Bajakian to similarly scheme to take advantage of the Red Wolves' weaknesses. That likely means establishing the power run game (which Jones has consistently held out as a point of emphasis) and the deep passing game against an Arkansas State defense that has a smallish defensive line and is more impressive on the back end.

The Tennessee offense line struggled with the experience and speed of Utah State's run defense, and losing left tackle Gilliam won't help. Whoever starts at left tackle (Blair, Kendrick, or Thomas) is going to need help from the tight ends to set the edge and cover up any mistakes. Expect Wolf, Daniel Helm, and Brendan Downs to be busy all over the field, with snaps at H-back, fullback, tight end, and split out wide.

Strap on your helmets and get ready to bang heads, fellas.

Joel Hollingsworth - Marlin Lane

If Hunter's right and Butch & Bajakian are going to lean on the run game this week, then the key units are going to be the offensive line and the running backs. And if the offensive line is still climbing the learning curve, then it's on the backs to make the most of their carries. I know kidB loves his shiny objects (and I'm as excited about Jalen Hurd's prospects as anyone), but Lane did get the start last week and had more rushing yards on the same number of carries as Hurd. A.J. Johnson reminded us last week of our tendency to utterly forget about experience in our passion for youth, so I'm going with the former 4-star recruit with four years of experience.