Will Arkansas State exploit Vols’ inexperienced offensive line?

2013 Arkansas State Football Highlights

2012 Arkansas State Football Highlights

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2011 Arkansas State Football Highlights

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Will Arkansas State exploit Vols’ inexperienced offensive line?

Tennessee hosts Sun Belt contender Arkansas State

Tennessee hosts Sun Belt contender Arkansas State

by: Ryan Shannon

After an impressive 38-7 win over Utah State, Butch Jones’ Tennessee football team faces a new challenge– moving on.

In his post-game press conference, Jones said, ” The next evolution of this football team is how can we handle this (win), put it to rest, come to work tomorrow with a short work week versus a very good quality of opponent, a very good football team, again, that knows how to win in Arkansas State.”

The Vols will host the 2013 Sun Belt runner-up Arkansas State Red Wolves (1-0) Saturday at noon.  Saturday will mark the second meeting between the two schools– the first coming in 2007 in a game dominated by Erik Ainge and the Vols offense, resulting in a 48-27 Tennessee win.

The Red Wolves have experienced the most instability a team could possibly have on the sidelines over the past three seasons. Three different head coaches (five if you count interim head coaches) have walked the sidelines for Arkansas State for three straight seasons, but the Red Wolves think they finally have a coach who will be in Jonesboro, Arkansas, for a while in Blake Anderson. Anderson, who was previously the offensive coordinator at North Carolina, was hired by Arkansas State in December. A-State has made improvements to its facilities in hopes of keeping its new head coach.

Anderson, like Butch Jones, has the job of replacing several key players, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

Offense

Arkansas State’s offense should look pretty familiar to Tennessee. Anderson’s offense features many of the same sets as Butch Jones and Mike Bajakian’s offense. The Red Wolves almost exclusively line up in the shotgun formation and run a lot of read option. The main difference between the two offenses is that, much like Utah State, A-State’s offense is quarterback centric.

The Red Wolves offense only returns four starters, but the largely inexperienced has gotten off to a good start so far this season.

Junior Freddi Knighten is set for his first season as starting quarterback for the Red Wolves. The dual-threat quarterback began his 2014 season with 219 passing yards and 104 rushing yards in a 37-10 win against FCS Montana State. He is a Chuckie Keeton type quarterback, with a heavier emphasis on running the ball. He has yet to prove himself as a capable passer against a formidable opponent, so it may be tough for him to find a rhythm against Tennessee’s talented secondary.

However, Knighten does have some talented options at the wide receiver position. Tres Houston and J.D. McKissic are Knighten’s top targets and have high play-making ability. Knighten often looks to get them the ball quickly, either on short passes or quick screens. Down the field, tight end Darion Griswold is a frequent target for Knighten.

Knighten is the Red Wolves’ leading rusher, but Michael Gordon and Johnston White will also see a lot of carries. Gordon gained 68 yards on just seven carries in week one, while White and Terrance Hollingsworth handled short-yardage situations. Gordon has good breakaway speed and can break off a big run if he gets to the corner. He and Knighten will look to give the Vols defense headaches on the read option.

On the offensive line, A-State returns only two of its regular starters from last season. The Tennessee defensive line, which gave Keeton and the Utah State offense problems all Sunday night, should be able to pressure Knighten and register multiple sacks on Saturday.

Defense

The Red Wolves defense is also similar to that of the Vols. They run a 4-3 defense, featuring a ball-hawking secondary.

That secondary is anchored by junior Rocky Hayes, who led the team in interceptions and pass breakups last season. He already registered his first interception Saturday against Montana State. Safeties Chris Humes and Charleston Girley will, not only, look to disrupt Justin Worley’s passes, but they will also be heavily involved in rush defense and blitzes.

The linebacking corps is equally experienced and impressive. Senior middle linebacker Qushaun Lee accounted for 97.5 tackles last season, nearly 15% of the team’s total tackles. On the outside, sophomore Xavier Woodson leads the way. Last week, Woodson accounted for a team-leading six solo tackles.

Arkansas State lost several starters on the defensive line, but their replacements are far from inexperienced. Returning starting defensive end Chris Stone is joined by Dexter Blackmon and Charles Alexander who have both already affected the opposing quarterback and running backs this season. They should prevent a healthy challenge for the Vols’ inexperienced offensive line, which struggled against Utah State.

Key Matchups

Tennessee coverage team vs. Arkansas State returners. On top of receiving duties, Arkansas State’s J.D. McKissic is also a threat in the punt and kick return game. McKissic returned a kick for a touchdown last season and averaged 8.5 yards per punt return. If not McKissic, freshman Blaise Taylor will return kick. Taylor is the son of Arkansas State cornerbacks coach and serial NCAA rules violator Trooper Taylor. Blaise Taylor returned a kick for 38 yards on Saturday.

Tennessee offensive line vs. Arkansas State front seven. The only negative takeaway from Tennessee’s win against Utah State was its running game, largely due to poor offensive line play. The offensive line has an opportunity Saturday to show improvement and learn to play as a unit. Collectively, Tennessee’s primary rushers Marlin Lane and Jalen Hurd averaged only 3.4 yards per carry against a depleted Utah State front seven. For the Vols to stand the test of the upcoming SEC schedule, the offensive line must improve.

Prediction

The only reason Tennessee should struggle in this game is if they overlook the Red Wolves, and Butch Jones will not allow that. The players are buying everything Jones is selling right now, so look for the Vols to go into Saturday’s game focused and excited for an opportunity to improve.

Tennessee wins 41-17.

The Vols should finish week two with a perfect 2-0 record for the fourth consecutive season, setting up one of week three’s most exciting games, Tennessee at Oklahoma.

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