The view from Knoxville: Beat writer Q&A

semerson@macon.comOctober 3, 2013 

The best thing one can do to get insight on the next opponent, short of being inside the coaches' meeting room - they usually don't like that - is to get the low-down from a beat writer. So let's get to it.

This week we welcome Evan Woodbery, the Tennessee beat writer for The Knoxville News-Sentinel. Woodbery is a skilled and experienced SEC beat writer, and one of the best around. (Do I say that pretty much every week? Well yes, but I mean it!)

If you're not already, I encourage you to follow Woodbery on Twitter at @TennesseeBeat. You can read his coverage, and that of the News-Sentinel team, at this link here.

Thanks to Evan for some very informative answers:

1. How much has Butch Jones changed the culture around the program so far, and is it showing any tangible results?

Woodbery: I think he’s done a good job of reaching out to various constituencies that might have felt marginalized over the last five years -- whether that’s former players, in-state high school coaches or just average fans. At the end of the day, however, it all comes down to wins and losses, and UT faces some challenges in 2013 and 2014.

He has done a good job of reinvigorating recruiting and a top-five or top-10 class in 2014 is very possible. But sustaining that momentum during tough years was something that Derek Dooley couldn’t do. The success of Jones’ tenure likely depends on it.

2. Tennessee's passing game has obviously been a struggle. How much of that is Justin Worley, how much is that not having proven receivers, and what are the chances Worley and co. can turn it around quickly against an inexperienced Georgia secondary?

Woodbery: I do think that good receivers can make a quarterback look better, and vice versa. In that sense, Tennessee’s problems at quarterback and receiver have only fed off each other in 2013.

Worley has been victimized by drops, poorly run routes and some interceptions that could have been saved by a more aggressive receiver. But that doesn’t absolve him of blame entirely.

For a brief time last week -- perhaps the first time all season -- Tennessee’s offense really clicked. So that’s something to build on, but given the passing game’s struggles this year, I would be skeptical that it might suddenly turn around against the No. 6 team in the country.

3. Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane are each averaging about six yards per carry, and Tennessee has an experienced offensive line. But the Volunteers didn't run well at Florida (66 rushing yards, 2.9 yards per carry). What's your read on the strength of Tennessee's run game right now?

Woodbery: Florida’s defensive line was tough to run on, especially because Tennessee could offer no threat of a passing game. I think the offensive line has taken unfair criticism. It can dominate weaker opponents, and it can go head-to-head with tougher lines, but it can’t win the game alone.

Rajion Neal is coming off one of the best games of his career, but getting a healthy Marlin Lane back to act as a one-two punch is essential.

4. Now for the defense: Tennessee's secondary is inexperienced (like Georgia), and its third-down defense ranks second-worst in the SEC (ahead of only Georgia). What can Tennessee secondary coach (and old friend here in Athens) Willie Martinez do to stop Aaron Murray and the pass?

Woodbery: I think this is a scary matchup for Tennessee, especially because Murray is an intelligent and experienced quarterback who can sniff out mismatches on the line of scrimmage. UT freshman cornerback Cameron Sutton has done well for essentially getting picked on every game this year. The Vols have struggled in nickel sets, and don’t appear to have any ready answers on the roster.

The third down defense took a step forward against South Alabama. The Vols were just killed on third-and-long against Florida and Oregon. Obviously, if UT wants to entertain upset hopes, the defense has to get off the field on third-and-long.

5. Tennessee's front seven is filled with upperclassmen, but the Vols have struggled some in that area too (ranking 11th in the SEC against the run.) Tennessee's cause may be helped by Todd Gurley's absence, if he's out, but what are the Vols' chances against Keith Marshall and his backups?

Woodbery: I wonder how many of those rushing yards came from quarterbacks. That’s not an excuse, of course, but the Vols have struggled against mobile quarterbacks in each of the last three weeks. But the return of two speedy ends (Jacques Smith and Corey Vereen) has given coaches hope for improvement on the edges.

6. Finally, what would be the two or three key things that would have to happen for Tennessee to pull off the upset?

Woodbery: None of these answers are revolutionary, but I think the Vols will have to win the turnover battle. Not only must UT force a couple of Georgia turnovers, but they must also turn those mistakes into points.

The offense can’t get bogged down in a series of three-and-outs. Even if the Vols aren’t scoring, they have to keep the ball long enough to give the defense a breather.

Finally, a splash play in the special teams would be huge. The Vols coverage teams have been very strong, but the return game has lacked a game-changing spark play. That would help on Saturday.

If you have any further questions about Georgia-Tennessee, be sure to check in on my live chat, Friday at 1 p.m. here on the blog.

More Q&As:

The view from Baton Rouge: Beat writer Q&A

The view from South Carolina: Beat writer Q&A

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