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VOL. 38 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 5, 2014

High-flying Vols can’t overlook Arkansas State

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KNOXVILLE – You had to be hiding under a rock not to hear the buzz this week about the University of Tennessee’s football team.

One person not reveling in the Vols’ 38-7 season opening victory over Utah State on Sunday night was UT coach Butch Jones.

His “snap and clear” mentality went to work right after the Vols’ rousing victory over Aggies in front of a sellout crowd of 102,455 at Neyland Stadium.

Jones quickly turned his focus on Arkansas State (1-0), which comes to Neyland on Saturday at noon with the same upset aspirations as Utah State.

“This football team must understand what’s at stake,” Jones says. “The more you win, the more that’s at stake, and what you did last week has absolutely no bearing on the outcome this week.

“You have to have a short-term memory, no matter if you win or you lose. You put it behind you and you move on. That’s what we’ve been stressing against a very good football team coming in here.”

Arkansas State, which has claimed a share of the Sun Belt Conference title each of the past three years, defeated visiting Montana State 37-10 in its season opener last Saturday.

It’s a program that has flourished despite a one-and-done coaching carousel of five head coaches in the past five years.

When Steve Roberts resigned Nov. 29, 2010 after back-to-back 4-8 seasons, Arkansas State turned to Hugh Freeze, who was previously the head coach at Lambuth University.

Freeze went 10-1 in his only season, 8-0 in the in the Sun Belt. He was hired as Ole Miss’ head coach after the last game of the 2010 regular season, and running backs coach David Gunn coached the Red Wolves in a loss to Northern Illinois in the 2011 GoDaddy.com Bowl.

Next, Gus Malzahn was hired from Auburn, where he was offensive coordinator, and coached Arkansas State to a 9-3 regular-season record. Malzahn was hired by Auburn as head coach on Dec. 4, 2012, and John Thompson served as interim coach for the GoDaddy.com Bowl victory over Kent State.

Enter Bryan Harsin, who was hired to replace Malzahn after serving two years as co-offensive coordinator at Texas. Harsin coached Arkansas State to a 7-5 record last season.

He was then hired as head coach at Boise State – which paid a $1.75 million contract buyout – before the Red Wolves’ victory over Ball State in their third consecutive GoDaddy Bowl game.

Blake Harrison, previously the offensive coordinator at North Carolina for two seasons, was hired to replace Harsin last December.

“Arkansas State comes in here, and their players expect to win, no matter who the head coach has been,” Jones says. “They win, and they go to bowl games, and you look at their body of work over a long period of time, it’s very, very impressive.

“They’re an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. They like to snap the ball exceptionally quick. Their offensive line does a great job. Their center (Tyler Greve) is the gas pedal and he does a great job. They all do, sprinting to the line of scrimmage and getting lined up.”

Another lopsided victory Saturday like the one against Utah State would be another surprise.

The Red Wolves opened the Harrison era – no matter how short it potentially will be – in resounding fashion, rolling up 558 total yards against Montana State.

They feature another dual-threat quarterback in 5-11, 189-pound junior Fredi Knighten.

While the Vols were up to the task against Utah State QB Chuckie Keeton, they might be facing a more dangerous threat in Knighten. Last season’s ACL injury clearly took its toll on Keeton.

UT better enjoy the favorite’s role this week. The Vols will be underdogs in the next three games – at Oklahoma next Saturday, at Georgia (Sept. 27) and at home against Florida (Oct. 4).

With the grueling three-game stretch looming, Jones was asked early in the week if the Vols might be looking ahead to Oklahoma after putting a whipping on Utah State.

Key Matchups

Justin Worley vs. Red Wolves Secondary: Worley, who completed 27 of 38 passes for 273 yards and three TDs with no interceptions against Utah State, will be throwing into an experienced Red Wolves secondary that returned every starter from the 2013 team led by free safety Sterling Young and strong safety Chris Humes.

Montana State was held to 142 passing yards as Dakota Prokup completed 14 of 26 passes with no touchdowns and two interceptions, one by Red Wolves middle linebacker Qushaun Lee and another by cornerback Rocky Hayes, an All-Sun Belt second-team player last season.

However, the Red Wolves’ secondary was far from perfect last season, allowing 232 passing yards per game.

Hendersonville freshman Jalen Hurd scored his first touchdown as a Vol against Utah State. He also had a key block that enabled receiver Pig Howard to score.

-- Ap Photo/Tim Gangloff

Knighten vs. Vols’ defense: The Vols’ defensive front kept Keeton pinned in the pocket almost the entire game Sunday; Keeton finished with 12 net rushing yards on eight carries and was 18 of 35 passing for 144 yards with two interceptions.

Knighten hasn’t missed a beat since taking over in the 2013 regular-season finale when starter Adam Kennedy was injured. He was the GoDaddy Bowl MVP after rushing for 97 yards and passing for 115 yards in the 23-20 victory over Ball State.

Last week, Knighten rushed for the team-high 104 yards on 15 carries while completing 19 of 29 passes for 219 yards and one TD. He even caught a 45-yard pass from wide receiver Tres Houston.

UT front seven vs. Arkansas State OL: Like the Vols, the Red Wolves’ have done a total makeover on its offensive line since 2013. Only one starter returned from last season, right tackle Colton Jackson, although right guard Alan Wright had starter’s experience before getting the start against Montana State.

The Vols’ defensive front was stout against Utah State, and the linebacker corps is the best position unit on the team (perhaps along with the receivers).

Still, Jones saw plenty of room for improvement before the Arkansas State game.

“Defensively, even though we had a couple of forced turnovers (against Utah State), I didn’t necessarily like our ball disruptions,” Jones says. “I didn’t think we were trying to get the ball out. I didn’t think we swarmed to the football (like) we expect our defenses to play here, so we need to take major strides that way.”

Notable notes

Gilliam’s out for year: UT left tackle Jacob Gilliam, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on from Farragut High School, suffered a torn ACL in the third quarter against Utah State and is lost for the season.

It’s a big blow to the Vols’ offensive line and a downer in what was a feel-good story. Gilliam was awarded a scholarship last May and earned a starting job after being on the squad team last year. He played in two games last year.

“It’s very, very unfortunate,” Jones says. “I feel for (Gilliam). I feel for his family. Here’s a young man, I love him to death, a walk-on who earned a scholarship. He earned it, and it’s very, very unfortunate, but that’s football. Next guy in.

“It will be an opportunity for Brett Kendrick. It will be an opportunity for Dontavius Blair, Coleman Thomas, so it will be a great opportunity. We’ve been preparing these guys, but I just feel for Jacob just because he’s earned the respect of his peers and he’s worked so hard to put himself in position be our starting left tackle.”

Kendrick, a redshirt freshman from Christian Academy of Knoxville, replaced Gilliam after the injury.

Hurd’s Turn: Freshman tailback Jalen Hurd, former standout at Hendersonville’s Beech High School, drew some praise from Jones earlier this week.

Hurd, who rushed for 29 yards on 11 carries, had a crucial block on the Vols’ first touchdown of the season, an 8-yard end-around run by receiver Alton “Pig” Howard.

Another Sellout?: Jones would love to see another one in Neyland Stadium against Arkansas State.

“We need Vol Nation,” Jones says. “We had the best football environment in the country, 102,455. Our fans were outstanding. It didn’t matter, rainbows, rain, shine, they were here, and they stayed till the end. Our student section was outstanding, the Rocky Top Rowdies now as we call them, and we’re going to need everyone.”

Trooper’s Return: Trooper Taylor, who was UT’s assistant head coach from 2004-07 under Phillip Fulmer, is the running backs coach at Arkansas State.

Taylor left UT after the 2007 for Oklahoma State for one season as co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach. He was assistant head coach/wide receivers coach at Auburn from 2009-12.

Local Flavor: Daryl Rollins-Davis, the 2013 Mr. Football winner as a senior at Knoxville Fulton High School, is a freshman running back for Arkansas State.

Rollins-Davis, who didn’t play against Montana State, rushed for 1,990 yards and 39 touchdowns last season and led Fulton to its second consecutive Class 4A state title and a 15-0 record. He rushed for 2,440 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2012.

Other in-state players on the Arkansas State roster are fifth-year senior linebacker Darius Buckley, who played at Memphis White State High School in Memphis and began his college career at Lambuth; redshirt freshman linebacker Ben Gallagher, who played at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis; and junior defensive back TeDarius Turner, who played at Cordova High in Memphis.

Series Breakdown: This will be Tennessee’s second game against Arkansas State. In 2007, Eric Ainge threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns as the Vols beat Arkansas State, 48-27. The Vols are 10-1 against current Sun Belt Conference teams; their only loss was to North Texas, 21-14, in 1975 at Neyland Stadium.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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