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Four things we’d like to see against Akron

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

Tennessee gets a breather before opening SEC play against the Florida Gators next weekend in Neyland Stadium. At the podium on Thursday, Josh Heupel was not interested in looking ahead, even seeming slightly annoyed at the thought. After last week’s upsets, you understand why.

Still, Tennessee is favored by nearly 50 points, per DraftKings Sportsbook. Akron is one of the worst teams at the FBS level, and Joe Moorhead has quite the task in front of him. The Volunteers are going to roll here, and Saturday is another opportunity to build depth and see what you’ve got on the roster.

Here’s what I’d like to see.

Cornerback puzzle

Tennessee has plenty of options at cornerback, but none of them are proven at this point. The Volunteers have veteran Warren Burrell in place, but his struggles over the past couple of season have been well documented. Christian Charles and Kamal Hadden are next in line, while JUCO addition Dee Williams is waiting for his opportunity. Heupel said he was hopeful that Williams could play on Saturday. Perhaps we’ll see some Brandon Turnage as well.

It’s the last chance to throw these guys out here in game situation before SEC play, and Willie Martinez should take advantage of this opportunity. The Tennessee pass rush took care of business last weekend against Pittsburgh, which ended up being the tipping point of the game. Expect a more conservative approach from Tim Banks this week, which will put more pressure on these defensive backs to perform. I’m interested to see it.

Offensive line push

Through two weeks, the Tennessee offensive line hasn’t been generating much push in the run game. Want some evidence? The Volunteers were one of the top rushing teams in America last season, but they rank just 76th nationally through two games. Even against Ball State, Tennessee never really found a rhythm on the ground. Several runs were stuffed at the line of scrimmage even with the starters in.

Against Akron, there’s no reason why Jabari and Jaylen shouldn’t be ripping off chunks of yards on the regular. Josh Heupel needs that ground game going to bring his offense up to full song, he’ll have a chance to do that on Saturday night.

Joe Milton’s progress

Odds are pretty good that we’ll see Milton a good bit against Akron. He got nearly a half of work against Ball State, and really did look like he had improved as a passer. I’d like to see more of that against the Zips — just show me that he can operate the offense like he did against Ball State. I’d even like to see a couple deep shots, something that he struggled with last season. Show me some touch.

Building depth at the skill positions

Small and Wright. Tillman, Hyatt and McCoy. What’s next? And how comfortable is the staff with their players beyond that top five? We saw a ton of guys get reps against Ball State, but when things got real against Pittsburgh, the staff stuck with their top guys.

Tennessee is just one injury away at running back from leaning hard on a true freshman, so getting Dylan Sampson and Justin Williams-Thomas significant reps makes a lot of sense.

Similarly, but not quite as dire, getting Walker Merrill, Ramel Keyton, Squirrel White, Jimmy Holiday and Jimmy Calloway some reps and keeping them engaged is also important. If the Ball State game is any indication, all of the guys listed above are in for a busy night.

Kickoff between Akron and Tennessee is set for 7 p.m. ET. ESPN+ and SEC Network+ will have the coverage (streaming only).

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.