Jeremy Pruitt has his work cut out for him. His Vols had a tumultuous offseason and a lackluster spring game that concluded with Pruitt questioning the mettle of his players and fans.
Things won’t get easier in Week 1, when West Virginia meets Tennessee in Charlotte.
The Mountaineers are one of the more interesting non-bluebloods in 2018. A year ago, they were 7-3, with close losses to Virginia Tech and TCU, when starting QB Will Grier broke his finger early against Texas. The Mountaineers went on to drop that game, their season finale against OU, and their bowl against Utah.
Now Grier returns — Tennessee fans might remember him from that time in 2015 when he hit a game-winning TD against the Vols — and the Mountaineers also return receivers Gary Jennings (1,096 yards) and David Sills (18 TDs). The OL returns four starters, including both tackles, and new top RB Kennedy McKoy ran 125 times for 576 yards. There’s talk that WVU could use this returning firepower to win a Big 12 that no longer includes Baker Mayfield or Mason Rudolph, though the numbers aren’t as high on the Eers as the humans are.
Dana Holgorsen has yet to prove WVU’s skilled offense and unorthodox defense can reliably beat teams with high-level talent. A win against the talented (if turbulent) Vols would be a big step.
West Virginia’s 3-3-5 defense can be tricky to attack, particularly for a new offense with a young QB.
The Mountaineers like to play traditional defenses like a 4-3 over front with nickel personnel and cover 3 with an eight-man front, but they get there in several ways.
The starting LBs for 2018 figure to go David Long (5’11, 225), Dylan Tonkery (6’, 214), and Quondarius Qualls (6’, 216). Long and Tonkery are returning starters, everyone is in at least their third year in the program, and they’re all pretty quick. WVU emphasizes quickness and knowhow across the backfield, to allow a variety of looks in the hopes of having a numerical advantage wherever the offense wants to be.
It can be hard to read:
If you know where they’ll end up or can blow away their DL, then their lack of size or elite talent can be punished. If you don’t, then it can seem like there are 12 of them on the field.
The new Tennessee staff wants a smashmouth offense that can throw over the top to build a lead, then get under center with a fullback and ice the game. However, the unit left by Butch Jones is not that.
QB Jarrett Guarantano has a solid arm, but the big opportunity he presents is what he can do in a spread offense, like the one Jones used to lean on, running some option and finding targets on the move. Prospective starting RB Ty Chandler is a speedy 195-pounder, and the tandem that would be asked to plow the road is 230-pound receiving TE Eli Wolf and 6’4, 230-pound H-back Austin Pope. Neither is a road grader, but both are valuable passing targets.
The OL is well-stocked with Jones’ recruits, such as 2017 five-star Trey Smith, many of whom were thrown into the mix for parts of the messy 2017 and gained experience as a result.
There’s a formula in which the staff embraces the reality of the spread roster and rides zone-option and three-step drops, with their TE and H-back running underneath routes for Guarantano:
Figuring that out and nailing it down in time for a Week 1 battle against a unique and veteran defense is still a tall order.
For West Virginia, this will be a test of quality for their a DL, which figures to involve guys like transfers Kenny Bigelow (USC) and Jabril Robinson (Clemson) who haven’t even practiced with the team yet. If a rebuilt Tennessee run game blows holes through these Mountaineers, that won’t bode well for West Virginia’s chances of finally winning the Big 12.
The more interesting Vols test will be against the Mountaineer offense.
Holgorsen added Cal OC Jake Spavital in 2017, and they continued to push this offense towards the Art Briles/Chad Morris realm of smashmouth spread. With Grier and his rocket arm, WVU began to employ wider splits to help create matchups for receivers on deep routes.
They’re playing spread-iso ball, plugging in blue-chip pocket passers from Florida schools (Jack Allison of Miami is next in line) to launch to WRs facing man coverage. Sills is the most terrifying weapon in this system, burning team after team as the Mountaineers use different formations to get him matched up in man coverage. Inside of the 40 against man coverage, Sills was nearly an automatic TD:
There are ways to try and combat this. One is to play lots of safe, deep coverages and make West Virginia prove it can run the ball down the field on a light box. That worked out for a few teams in 2017, but WVU’s run game figures to be improved. The other is to try and hold up in man coverage where you can while generating pressure on the QB.
Pruitt comes from the Nick Saban tree, and he’s coached two different kinds of championship defenses (2013 Florida State, 2017 Alabama).
That means he has a wide repertoire of pattern-matching coverages and a knack for developing versatile secondaries.
However, this Tennessee team might be starting second-year players at either cornerback position, and the strength of this defense seems to be in the middle of the field, with nose tackle Shy Tuttle, inside-backers Daniel Bituli and Darrin Kirkland, Jr, and safeties Micah Abernathy and Nigel Warrior.
While Pruitt has long leaned on loading the box and playing man coverage, the obvious play is to downsize with a dime package that takes Grier and the deep routes off the table, turning this into a lower-scoring affair.
If West Virginia has grown enough over the offseason to run on an SEC front and light up the scoreboard, then all Tennessee can do is warn the Big 12 that this WVU team might be different.