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The Flip Side: What to Worry About, What to Feel Good About Post ETSU Win

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NCAA Football: East Tennessee State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

59-3 victories are enjoyable for any team, regardless of the level of opponent. Tennessee football secured its first win since November 4th, 2017 and looked pretty good in the process. Jeremy Pruitt’s team looked prepared and fully capable of maximizing their available talent against an overwhelmed opponent.

One needs to be wary of conclusions after a game against an FCS team. Yet there are still legitimate observations to be made in light of Saturday’s blowout, almost all of them good. We give an overview below.

Worry

Offensive Line Consistency

For the second week in a row, the Tennessee offensive line is the biggest concern. That’s difficult to do when facing an FCS team, but sure enough, the East Tennessee State Buccaneers controlled the line of scrimmage pretty comfortably for the first quarter.

To their credit, the offensive line did begin to regroup in the second quarter. They played much better in the second half overall. But there are no excuses for coming out and looking that uncertain against an FCS defensive line. Especially when your identity is supposed to be power-running.

They actually looked good in pass protection and gave Jarrett Guarantano more than enough time to hit his receivers. Run-blocking is still the most discouraging aspect and it’s blatantly obvious that they do not have the personnel to run Helton’s ideal offense. The coaches presumably understand that and will be adding more wrinkles to the gameplan to try and avoid the issue.

Feel Good

Young Defensive Backs

There’s going to be glitches when you have two true freshman starting in the secondary and other true freshmen rotating in. In addition to these hiccups, you shouldn’t draw too many conclusions against inferior competition. That being said, Saturday’s game is an insight into what the best case scenario is for their development. They seemed to be understanding what Pruitt’s system is supposed to do and witnessing what it will eventually look like with both better talent and more experience. They won’t look that impressive against SEC competition obviously. It’s still a confidence booster and nice preview.

This one is admittedly more of a long term factor. They’ll lose some battles down the road, but Tennessee’s future in the secondary is bright once they get the necessary depth.

Wide Receiver Options

All the focus will be on Marquez Callaway—for good reason. The coaching staff realized that they had a Lamborghini just sitting in their garage, waiting to be driven. Through two contests, Callaway has garnered 12 receptions for 163 yards and looked mighty impressive doing it. He’s athletic, tough, and more polished than any other option at this point in time.

That being said, Tennessee’s receiving corps looks very well coached in the limited reps we’ve seen thus far. Josh Palmer and Jauan Jennings are quality #2 and #3 options and all the main receivers look willing to block. Tennessee really does have a receiving corps which could threaten even good SEC secondaries. Whether or not the offense centers on that remains to be seen.

Team Attitude

There’s a play that sticks out in my mind. While I don’t remember the exact time and place, I believe it was the one scoring drive from ETSU. They had finally gotten into Tennessee territory down 45-0 and looking for any sort of positive news. There was a play to the left side of the field that looked covered up by the defensive backs.

But if you focused on the bottom of the screen, you witnessed defensive end Kyle Phillips flying to the ball carrier. He was a solid 10 yards away and there were more than enough Tennessee defenders to make the tackle. Despite the situation, Phillips played like it was a tight fourth quarter contest.

None of that will show up in the stat sheet. But it’s refreshing to see after last year’s squad routinely had players giving up on key drives. A system can only work if players buy into it. Early returns suggest that even if 2018 is a rebuilding process, the players trust Pruitt to get them to that eventual level of competition.

Trey Smith

Yes, the offensive line as a whole was placed within the “Worry” category. That’s certainly not because of Trey Smith, who is leagues ahead of his fellow linemen when it comes to fulfilling his duties and playing with consistency. Tennessee is fully aware of what they have in Smith, and they’re going to try their hardest to keep him healthy while also utilizing his ability on the edge. It’s fair to say that any long-term success with the run game will be coming from Trey Smith’s side of the line.