Tennessee’s first true test has arrived. The Volunteers will play host to the Pittsburgh Panthers this week, a game that could prove pivotal if Tennessee wants to get to six wins this season.
It’s a big spot ahead of SEC play for Josh Heupel’s year one squad — can they clean up some offensive issues that we saw in the opener? Here’s what we’ll be watching for.
Joe Milton improvement?
Let’s face it, Milton has to be better this week. The glimpses were there, but things really fell off a cliff after those first two touchdown drives. It wasn’t all on him — the staff noted some incorrect receiver reads and obviously some drops hurt. But Milton has to speed up his process and get the ball out of his hands quicker, and that’s something that the staff can help him do with play-calling. It’s probably worth noting that we likely didn’t see all of the playbook during week one. That will change this weekend.
“You can make your biggest jump from Week 1 to Week 2,” Heupel said on the SEC teleconference Wednesday. “Doesn’t always mean that it’s going to happen. I think you have the opportunity to constantly improve at the quarterback position. Really for him, the structure of what we saw the other night was different than what we had anticipated seeing. His ability to understand what we’re doing, being able to get his eyes in the right place, and then ultimately that will take him to the right wide receiver. All of our quarterbacks are growing in what we’re doing offensively. I think he’ll continue to understand the reason why behind what we’re calling and be able to cue the right guy and go through the progression.”
Tennessee ran away with the game against Bowling Green thanks to their rushing attack. They likely won’t be able to do that on Saturday — especially if Tiyon Evans can’t go — so efficiency from Milton is needed. Let’s see how he responds.
Bigger test for improved defensive front
The Tennessee defensive line absolutely wrecked Bowling Green, as they should have. With such an inferior opponent, it’s tough to draw too many conclusions, although the performance from that group was outstanding.
Now we figure out what they’re made of. Pittsburgh isn’t a juggernaut program, but they’ve got plenty of stability and continuity going in their favor.
“They’ve got a lot of skill,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “Skill guys that are running backs that have been there a long time. Those guys have played a lot of football for them, and they are really big up front. We will have our hands full. We understand what the expectation is in terms of the physicality those guys will try to play with and we will have to try to match that and play with the same energy and edge, but overall, they are a veteran offensive group and they have played together for a long time.”
Matthew Butler, Elijah Simmons and Tyler Baron all flashed against Bowling Green, and the rotation is deep. Now with an equal opponent visiting Knoxville, we should have a better idea of where this unit is.
For what it’s worth, Pittsburgh ranked 111th in rushing a year ago. So while their front has played a lot of ball together, it hasn’t produced much production. Tennessee needs their defensive line to show up and show out on Saturday.
Bounceback moment for Jalin Hyatt; Velus Jones Jr. more involved?
What started as a big night for Jalin Hyatt turned south as the game went on. Four quick catches had Hyatt sitting with 64 yards after a quarter of play, but the sophomore failed to catch another pass — he actually dropped two that would have been big plays for an offense that needed one.
Hyatt will have every opportunity to put that behind him on Saturday. He’s the most dynamic threat in the receiver room, and passes will continue to come his way. We didn’t see much of him in the vertical game last week, I’d like to see that change on Saturday.
Will Tennessee manufacture more pre-determined quick hitters for Milton? If they do, expect Velus Jones Jr. to be more involved. The senior didn’t catch a pass last week, which was pretty shocking. That should change this week.
Big early spot for Jaylen Wright; How much can Jabari Small handle?
The Tiyon Evans rumor appears to have legs. Jimmy Hyams reports that he’s doubtful for Saturday, which would deliver a big blow to the Tennessee rushing attack. It would put a lot on Jabari Small’s plate, and it would shove true freshman Jaylen Wright directly into the spotlight.
Wright generated some buzz during spring and fall camps, quickly coming on and moving up the running back depth chart. He’s settled as the No. 3 option for Tennessee, and got some run late in the game against Bowling Green.
What happens behind Wright? Last week it was Marcus Pierce — could it be Dee Beckwith or Len’Neth Whitehead? That’s a pretty big unknown going into this one.
Kickoff is set for noon ET on Saturday, and ESPN will have the coverage live from Knoxville.