Tennessee at Missouri: Vols' 2-deep full of youth, potential and inconsistency

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Youth. Youth, youth, youth. Youthy youth youth youth.

At one point in the 2009 season, Missouri had something like 32 freshmen, redshirt freshmen, and sophomores on its two-deep. It was incredible. Not surprisingly, that team wasn't very good. It is one of only two Missouri teams in the last eight seasons to rank 50th or worse in the F/+ rankings. (The other, of course was last year's team, but you didn't need me to tell you that.) The Tigers got to a bowl game thanks to a cakey schedule and timely improvement, but it wasn't very good. Following the 2009 (youth) and 2012 (injury) seasons, Missouri surged pretty dramatically in 2010 and 2013.

Experience and good health can lead to pretty rapid improvement if the talent is there. And Tennessee's last few games suggest that there's a solid amount of talent waiting to be refined and polished up. But the Vols aren't there yet. There are 18 freshmen, redshirt freshmen, and sophomores on the 2-deep, for one thing. And while performances against South Carolina and Georgia proved that they'll take what you give them*, performances against Oregon, Florida, and Alabama suggest they're not yet ready to take things on their own. If Mizzou comes out in a funk, hungover a bit from last week's disappointment, but Vols will smack them in the mouth. But the Tigers' A-game is better than Tennessee's. Play well and win. Play really well and win by a lot.

* Make no mistake: this not as backhanded a compliment as it seems. A lot of teams are too disorganized to take advantage of mistakes. Tennessee needs some breaks, but not THAT many breaks.

Offense

Quarterback

Joshua Dobbs (6'3, 193, Fr.): 5-for-12, 75 yards (6.3 per attempt); 3 carries, 19 yards (6.3)
Riley Ferguson (6'3, 181, Fr.)

As I'm sure you've heard, Mizzou will be facing a backup quarterback for the third consecutive week. Justin Worley, who lost his starting job to Nathan Peterman in September, got it back when Peterman injured his hand (tough year for SEC quarterbacks) but was lost to his own hand injury last week. Joshua Dobbs came in and held his own, more or less, against an increasingly disinterested Alabama defense in the second half of last week's Third Saturday in October (which, yes, happened on the fourth Saturday in October). He was a high-three-star recruit (according to Rivals) in high school, as was Riley Ferguson. The Vols were attempting to preserve each player's redshirt, but with Worley's injury, that's not an option. Dobbs is the lone signal caller unless he, too, gets hurt.

Dobbs' reputation in high school was that of a good passer who can run if he needs to. He's had a week to prepare, but this has to be considered a pretty big advantage for Missouri. Worley wasn't amazing to begin with, but Dobbs' decision making (and his stamina in decision making) will be tested.

Running Back

Rajion Neal (5'11, 212, Sr.): 145 carries, 763 yards (5.3), 9 TD; 23 targets, 17 catches, 76 yards (3.3)
Marlin Lane (5'11, 205, Jr.): 63 carries, 360 yards (5.7), 4 TD; 8 targets, 6 catches, 31 yards (3.8)
Tom Smith (5'11, 220, So.): 21 carries, 91 yards (4.3); 1 target, 1 catch, 3 yards (3.0)

Rajion Neal is one of three players who have been in Knoxville for approximately 13 years. Neal and defenders Jacques Smith and A.J. Johnson seem to have been Vols for well over a decade now, but I guess that's probably incorrect. Regardless, Neal and Marlin Lane are both solid, strong runners, not elite but not average, either. They are featured prominently as bailout options in the passing game, but they aren't used aggressively like South Carolina's backs are. They are basically asked to turn a sack or throwaway into a 3-5 yard gain. They don't do much more than that.

It will be interesting to see how UT uses Dobbs here. He's by all accounts more mobile than Worley or Peterman, but it's not like UT wants him taking many hits. Tennessee basically runs and passes an average amount of time -- the Vols run slightly more than average on standard downs and pass slightly more than average on passing downs -- but there's always a chance that they go into QB Preservation Mode and try to lean more on the running game. With the way Missouri has defended the straight-up run this year, I encourage this, even if Neal and Lane are still good enough to do some damage here and there.

Receiving Corps

WRMarquez North (6'4, 215, Fr.): 42 targets, 25 catches, 368 yards (8.8 per target), 1 TD
Jacob Carter (6'0, 190, Jr.): 4 targets, 3 catches, 31 yards (7.8)

WRPig Howard (5'8, 185, So.): 44 targets, 25 catches, 255 yards (5.8), 3 TD
Devrin Young (5'8, 171, Jr.): 2 targets, 2 catches, 13 yards (6.5)

WRJason Croom (6'5, 225, RSFr.): 20 targets, 11 catches, 145 yards (7.3), 1 TD
Josh Smith (6'1, 193, Fr.): 27 targets, 11 catches, 173 yards (6.4), 1 TD

TE: Brendan Downs (6'5, 248, Jr.): 21 targets, 10 catches, 62 yards (3.0), 2 TD
A.J. Branisel (6'4, 235, Fr.): 3 targets, 3 catches, 28 yards (9.3), 1 TD

Marquez North was a high-four-star recruit last year, and accordingly, it took him a little while to get rolling. In his first six games this year, he caught 18 passes for 179 yards and a score; not amazing, not bad. In the last two weeks against South Carolina and Alabama, though? Seven catches for 189 yards. Like this super-young receiving corps as a whole, he is a work in progress. He's likely to take another step back at some point, and he's likely to follow that with two steps forward. He's made some highlight-reel catches in 2013; I'd be okay with him not making one on Saturday.

North and Alton Howard (Pig to his friends) have combined to catch 58 percent of their passes. Howard was fantastic against Florida and Georgia -- 8 catches, 145 yards; 8 carries, 48 yards -- and has been mostly invisible otherwise. His other six games: 17 catches, 110 yards. If North doesn't go off, though, this is a limited receiving corps. The other three primary targets above (Jason Croom, Josh Smith, Brendan Downs) have combined for a catch rate of just 47 percent. You can still do damage with that as long as you're averaging about 19 yards per catch; they're averaging 11.9. If Dobbs is harassed and E.J. Gaines is doing a solid job on North (if he's even on North), Tennessee's passing game will struggle.

Offensive Line

LT: Antonio Richardson (6'6, 327, Jr.)
Jacob Gilliam (6'4, 287, Jr.)

LG: Alex Bullard (6'2, 302, Sr.)
Marcus Jackson (6'2, 307, Jr.)

C: James Stone (6'3, 291, Sr.)
Mack Crowder (6'2, 280, So.)

RG: Zach Fulton (6'5, 323, Sr.)
Dylan Wiesman (6'3, 308, So.)

RT: Ja'Wuan James (6'6, 318, Sr.)
Kyler Kerbyson (6'4, 306, So.)

Now to the strength. Tennessee's line is big and experienced; the Vols had one of the best sack rates in the nation last year, and while Tyler Bray's "Oh crap, there's pressure, I better bomb this out of bounds" tendencies (a good thing, by the way) helped out in that regard, the line did protect him quite well.

I know how much our Tennessee friends hate "proprietary" stats that don't tell them everything they want to hear, but the Vols rank 10th in Adj. Line Yards and 15th in Adj. Sack Rate. They create opportunities, they keep defenders out of the backfield, and they hold up to passing downs pass rushes well. This might be the best line Mizzou has faced this year; and if there's one thing a freshman quarterback needs beyond everything else, it's a line that has his back. Mizzou has harassed passers and hammered runners for most of the year; this will be a test.

Defense

Defensive Line

LEO: Jacques Smith (6'2, 243, Sr.): 9.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 QB hurries (6 games)
Jordan Williams (6'5, 260, Jr.): 11.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL (1.5 sacks)
Corey Vereen (6'2, 246, Fr.): 4.5 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 2 QB hurries

DT: Daniel McCullers (6'8, 351, Sr.): 19.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL (0.5 sacks), 1 Fr, 1 PBU, 4 QB hurries
Gregory Clark (6'2, 327, Jr.): 3.0 tackles, 1 QB hurry

NG: Daniel Hood (6'4, 277, Sr.): 8.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 QB hurries
Danny O'Brien (6'2, 287, RSFr.): 5.5 tackles, 2 TFL (1 sack)

DE: Corey Miller (6'3, 265, Sr.): 19.0 tackles, 2 TFL (2 sacks), 1 PBU, 3 QB hurries
Marlon Walls (6'2, 272, Sr.): 16.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL (4.5 sacks), 1 FF, 2 QB hurries

The good: Tennessee's line does go pretty deep; the Vols will rotate quite a few players in and out, especially at the end position. And Marlon Walls (another 19th-year senior) has proven a pretty effective pass rusher. The bad (and again, here come the "proprietary" stats): The line is only decent -- 50th in Adj. Line Yards, 52nd in Adj. Sack Rate. For comparison, Missouri's offensive line is seventh in Adj. Line Yards and 75th in Adj. Sack Rate.

The Vols don't prevent opportunities for opposing backs very well (104th in Opportunity Rate, which is exactly what you think) and are 124th, second-to-last, in Power Success Rate. There are certainly worse lines out there, but Mizzou has certainly played some better ones.

Linebacking Corps

WLB: Dontavis Sapp (6'2, 227, Sr.): 31.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 PBU, 3 QB hurries
Christian Harris (6'1, 240, So.): 4.5 tackles

MLB: A.J. Johnson (6'2, 243, Jr.): 49.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 QB hurries
John Propst (6'0, 219, Sr.): 4.5 tackles

SLB: Brent Brewer (6'1, 221, Sr.): 16.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 INT, 2 PBU, 1 FF, 3 QB hurries
Greg King (6'2, 247, Sr.): 1.5 tackles

Tennessee plays two to three linebackers and goes no deeper. They play the pass pretty well, and ... wait, A.J. Johnson is only a junior? That can't possibly be right.

Secondary

CB: Justin Coleman (5'10, 184, Jr.): 26.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 5 PBU
Malik Foreman (5'10, 177, Fr.): 4.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT

CB: Cameron Sutton (6'1, 180, Fr.): 23.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 2 FR
Reggie Juin (5'7, 173, Sr.): 1.5 tackles

FS: LaDarrell McNeil (6'1, 199, So.): 29.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU
Byron Moore (6'0, 208, Sr.): 12.0 tackles, 2 PBU

SS: Brian Randolph (6'0, 199, So.): 39.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 1 PBU
Max Arnold (5'11, 188, So.): 3.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 FR

NB: JaRon Toney (5'10, 184, Jr.): 23.5 tackles, 3 QB hurries
Devaun Swafford (5'11, 184, Fr.): 4.5 tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU

Two things: 1) Tennessee ranks 14th in Passing S&P+ despite extreme youth. That's an exciting thing for Vols fans. 2) Anybody who has watched the Vols this year will tell you they struggle with good blocking. Alabama knew it, throwing two quick passes to Amari Cooper among the first three plays of the game; on the second, he raced past a well-blocked defender and scored from 54 yards out.

I thought Missouri should have thrown more bubble screens last week, and I definitely think the Tigers should throw more today. This is a solid secondary that is only going to get better in future seasons, but Mizzou has a size advantage in 2013 that few ever experience. The running game should do pretty well, but if the quick passing game can also get rolling, Josh Henson's play-calling gets awfully easy.

Special Teams

K: Michael Palardy (5'11, 185, Sr.): 28-for-28 PAT, 9-for-11 FG (8-for-9 under 40)

P: Michael Palardy (5'11, 185, Sr.): 40 punts, 44.7 average, 4 fair catches, 19 inside 20

KO: Michael Palardy (5'11, 185, Sr.): 44 kickoffs, 62.8 average, 16 touchbacks (36%)

KR: Devrin Young (5'8, 171, Jr.): 7 returns, 30.9 average (long: 58)
JaRon Toney (5'10, 184, Jr.): 5 returns, 19.6 average (long: 24)

PR: Jacob Carter (6'0, 190, Jr.): 7 returns, 9.3 average (long: 18)
Devrin Young (5'8, 171, Jr.): 2 returns, 10.5 average (long: 11)

Special teams is an area in which Tennessee absolutely has the upper-hand, at least if Bad Mizzou shows up here. Andrew Baggett is capable of making five FGs in a game or missing a key PAT. Marcus Murphy is obviously dangerous but hasn't done much this year (and if he's carrying more of a load thanks to injuries to Russell Hansbrough and Henry Josey, he might not be returning kicks at all). Christian Brinser is good and bad. One of the keys to this game will be limiting the advantage Tennessee creates through special teams. A special teams advantage isn't always a special teams advantage, and it would behoove Missouri to bring its A-game here.

BTBS preview to come tomorrow. Lots of "proprietary" stats there, just FYI.

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