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Buy or Sell: Position Battle, Secondary Struggles, Brent Cimaglia

What to keep an eye on before a big matchup against Georgia.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Tennessee Knoxville News-Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

We’re back with our “Buy or Sell” report, thanks to tons of positive feedback from readers! Last week, we broke down aspects of the opening win against South Carolina, and gave our thoughts on which parts of the team will remain constant, and which will change. Now, Tennessee is 2-0 after a 35-12 win against the Missouri Tigers. It was just what the fanbase needed after the thriller against South Carolina. A nice, confident win that allowed viewers to relax long before the final whistle.

This week’s edition is a bit longer—but that’s because we noticed some more interesting developments that fans need to keep in mind.


MLB spot is still wide open

I noticed something fairly interesting while rewatching the Missouri game. Tennessee seemed to operate on a drive-by-drive rotation with Jeremy Banks and Quavaris Crouch at the middle linebacker position. It didn’t look like it was a response to anything the offense was doing, it was a planned rotation. Banks in one, Crouch the next, so on and so forth. Henry To’o To’o being the only constant.

It could just be a simple position battle to see who gives the best results. But when you take everything into account, it seems like a bad development for Crouch. Banks is a guy who was away from the team for the majority of last season and the ensuing offseason, due to off the field incidents. Why would a player like Banks—who has been in off field trouble and already had to switch positions—play just as much as Crouch if the coaching staff was comfortable with the latter? Theoretically it could be to make sure they each get enough rest.

Yet that isn’t totally satisfactory, since it becomes obvious from watching film that Crouch is having some issues to start the year. His pass coverage is okay—some of these plays aren’t his fault at all—but opposing offenses do seem to key in the middle of the field when he’s there. His willingness to come up and hit is still appreciated. Both him and Banks look very aggressive when shooting into the backfield.

This is going to be a hard position battle throughout the season, if early returns are correct. Banks looks a bit more athletic at the MLB spot than Crouch at the moment. Crouch will still get plenty of reps—but it might be Banks who eventually takes over the majority of snaps. Each will need to improve some of their awareness over the middle of the field if they want to run away with it.

Deandre Johnson is “the guy” off the edge

If you were wondering who could replace Darrell Taylor as the top pass have your answer. Deandre Johnson had another good performance against Missouri, and now leads the SEC in sacks with 3.5 after two games. He needs to replicate these performances against top tier offensive lines (Georgia and Alabama come to mind) but it’s fair to believe in him after what we’ve seen so far. It’s almost scary how similar he looks to Darrell Taylor when he lines up on the edge.

Side note: Watch out for Kivon Bennett if he keeps improving throughout the season. He doesn’t have the numbers that Johnson does, but he has played well.

No true #1 back

Anyone who has watched Jim Chaney operate in recent years knows just how much he loves to split reps between his main backs. We’re not just talking 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 splits. He gets close to 50-50 if he can help it.

So far? It’s worked. Eric Gray and Ty Chandler are averaging over five yards per carry, and just came off a contest against Missouri where they both had explosive moments. They have split 60 carries by 32-28 in favor of Gray. Chaney even threw in some reps for Jabari Small against the Tigers.

Injuries are just about the only thing that could stop this duo from being one of the best 1-2 punches in the SEC. Chaney wants his whole backfield to eat, and it looks like he’s found his two weapons.


Young secondary players will get a lot of reps

Whereas a position like wide receiver will see a lot of fresh faces this year, the same cannot be said for the secondary. Doneiko Slaughter getting a start in the South Carolina game was an oddity, but not one repeated against Missouri. Theo Jackson took his place this week, and proved his worth with a great interception in the second half, when Missouri was driving and looking to make it a one score game.

Both safety and cornerback positions are now filled, and the STAR spot seems to be taken over again by Jackson. This doesn’t even include veteran Shawn Shamburger, who has missed the first two games due to COVID protocols. Cornerback Kenneth George Jr. also got a lot of time on the field.

There just isn’t much room for underclassmen to play right now unless they are truly blowing away the coaches in practice. Tennessee is set on a mix of Alontae Taylor, Bryce Thompson, Jaylen McCollough, Trevon Flowers, Theo Jackson, Kenneth George Jr., and Shawn Shamburger. Reps for anyone else will be few and far between (barring injury or COVID).


Brent Cimaglia is regressing

One of the weirder storylines to emerge? Kicker Brent Cimaglia struggling to start the year. He’s just 1-for-3 on field goals, having missed a 39-yard and 46-yard attempt. He hasn’t missed an extra point at least.

I wouldn’t hit the panic button just yet. Keep in mind that Cimaglia attempted seven field goals through the first two games last year, so there were a bit more reps to get comfortable in game. His first attempt of the season was the 46-yarder, which is a difficult shot for most college kickers.

That being said, I would still keep an eye on this storyline. It’s not unheard of for some kickers to experience a slide in performance. It’s arguably the position with the most mental pressure—if misses accumulate, it can snowball into worse performances. Ricky Aguayo at FSU being a prime example.

Defensive backfield is underperforming

Jeremy Pruitt confirmed in his most recent press conference that he’s not too pleased with the performance of his secondary. They’ve given up some explosive passes to both South Carolina and Missouri in back-to-back weeks. The run support from guys like Alontae Taylor has been much improved, but it might not matter if receivers can get behind them on obvious passing downs.

Since I don’t have All-22, it’s a bit hard to diagnose what has been the issue in the first couple of contests. We don’t have a look at the safeties on a lot of plays. I will say that at least a few of the key completions have simply been opposing players making great plays.

Thankfully it looks like Georgia isn’t going to institute a full-on air raid assault. This could be a good opportunity for the secondary to both highlight their run support, and also clean up some of the issues the coaches have seen. They will still need to be on high alert with someone like George Pickens lining up on the other side.