Probably the biggest reason for the huge jump Tennessee football has made Josh Heupel’s second year on the job has nothing to do with Hendon Hooker or the skill players. It’s what has happened up front.
The Vols have been winning the line of scrimmage in pretty much every game they’ve played. That was never more clear than against the Alabama Crimson Tide, and it keeps getting better.
“We’ve had consistency at the offensive line position,” Heupel said in his Monday press conference. “We’ve had a couple of guys that have been in and out, but everybody’s been playing their natural position as far as what they trained in in training camp and spring ball.”
With the Kentucky Wildcats coming to town, this is where the Vols must maintain their edge. Kentucky has an NFL caliber quarterback in Will Levis, and everybody knows the Vols have issues in the secondary.
On the other side, Kentucky has elite defenders on the back end and a top 25 pass defense. That’s where UT is at its strongest offensively.
Where UK is weak, though, is up front on both sides. That includes pass blocking, run blocking, rush defense and pass rush. This is where Heupel can really gain an advantage.
“The line of scrimmage is something that we talk about winning every single week,” he said. “Both sides of the line of scrimmage, defensively and offensively, are certainly important in this one, too.”
When Kentucky is on offense, the focus is clear: get to Levis. Kentucky has allowed over three and a half sacks a game, No. 120 in the nation. That’s red meat for two-time SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week Byron Young. Tyler Baron can help too.
Kentucky’s run blocking isn’t much more help. They average barely three yards a carry, down at No. 122. Meanwhile, the Vols allow under three yards a carry, which is top 10 in the nation.
Omari Thomas should destroy his competition Saturday with those numbers. However, Kentucky is coming off a bye, and Heupel did note that they still play physical under Mark Stoops.
“Multiple personnel groupings, getting into heavy sets, heavy run game and heavy play-action off of it to create a bunch of big plays,” he said of their scheme. “I think they’re second in the league in big plays through the air, and something that we’ve got to do a great job of handling. You can’t let them be efficient on early downs and play from ahead of the sticks.”
As far as the offense goes, how well Tennessee football runs the ball will be key in this one. It’s the one area where the Vols don’t have a massive advantage.
UT is No. 50 in rush offense at just over four and a half yards a carry, and Kentucky is No. 58 in rush defense, giving up nearly four yards a carry.
However, the Vols’ offensive line has turned into one of the best in the country. Jerome Carvin just became the third Vol to earn SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week over their past four games.
“Ton of growth for him, just continuing to physically change his body and allowing him to play in a better football position consistently, which allows him to play with better technique for an entire football game,” Heupel said of Carvin. “He’s one of the great leaders inside of that room.”
A week earlier, Darnell Wright earned SEC offensive Lineman of the Week for his play against Alabama. Javontez Spraggins earned the honor for his play against the Florida Gators.
All three plus center Cooper Mays started last year. Heupel noted that the group is has become very close and competes well together.
“They push each other during the course of practice,” he said. “That group, just another year of maturity in what we’re doing. From Coop (Cooper Mays) to Jerome (Carvin) to Darnell (Wright), (Javontez) Spraggins, they’ve all taken huge strides.”
One huge area of improvement for Tennessee football this year has been pass protection. The Vols are giving up just over one and a half sacks a game after giving up nearly three and a half last year.
That’s partially due to Hendon Hooker having much better pocket awareness, but the line is a huge part of that as well. Heupel acknowledged another year in the system for so many of them has been huge.
“Continuity up front, year of growth and understanding what we’re doing from Coach (Glen) Elarbee and their communication, they continue to get better fundamentally, and that’s allowed them to play at a really high level,” he said. “That’s pass protection obviously, trying to keep Hendon (Hooker) clean, and then what we’re doing running the football.”