Pregame: Ball State at Tennessee

Pregame: Ball State at Tennessee
WR Squirrel White (Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics)

It's game day! Before I really get going here I would just like to say thank you. First, thank you to everyone who has already subscribed to my newsletter, AB on FB. I learned a few years ago, while I was in graduate school for something completely unrelated, that covering college football is what I loved doing most. I wrestled with the idea of starting my own publication for a long time, and for a long time doubt kept me from giving it a shot. I had thoughts like, what if people don't think my writing – or speaking – is any good? What if people don't care about my writing at all? What if I look like an idiot on camera? What if people don't actually think any of my content is worth paying for? What if people question my lack of any education in journalism or media?

Then, I had an even greater 'what if.' What if I get old, look back on my life, and regret that I never even tried doing what I loved? Maybe that sounds cheesy to you, but that is honestly the thought process that motivated me to start this newsletter and associated YouTube channel. To be quite honest I still struggle with those same doubts from above, and I have a long way to go for this to become a full time gig, but I'm overwhelmed with the support I've received so far.

Also, thank YOU for reading this newsletter right now. There is a ton of high-quality Tennessee Volunteers coverage available out there. I probably read and watch as much of it as anyone. It means a great deal to me that, with such a large volume of quality content at your disposal and such a limited time to consume it, you would choose to set aside some of your time before kickoff to spend here. Thank you.

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I wanted to open up today's newsletter to everyone for a couple of reasons. For one, I think we're all just excited that it's finally football time in Tennessee. It's been a long wait and you've earned it! But also because I rely heavily on game footage to put these together. My goal is always to be informative, entertaining, and – hopefully – accurate with predicting what you will see during the game. Since this is the first game of the year, and we don't have any prior game film on Ball State, it didn't feel right to ask anyone to pay.

Alright, let's talk about the Ball State Cardinals.

Even though we don't have current year game film on Ball State we can make some educated guesses on how they will play – and how Tennessee might attack them – based on their history and returning production. The Cardinals have continuity across their coaching staff. They are coached by Mike Neu, who played at the school and is now in his seventh year as head coach. Offensive coordinator Kevin Lynch has been at Ball State since 2016 and has been the OC since 2020. Tyler Stockton coordinates the defense, which he has been doing in at least a shared capacity since 2019. They bring back a bunch of experience, particularly at running back and across the offensive line. I think with this information we can feel reasonably confident that, from a schematic standpoint, they should look similar to what we saw from them a season ago.

Tennessee Offense vs. Ball State Defense

The Tennessee offense is practically the most exciting thing in college football right now, which feels amazing to say so recently removed from the 2020 season. I think the Vols will be able to move the ball at will tonight. Here are a couple of main areas that I will be paying close attention to, because I think they might apply to the rest of the season.

-Is the timing between Quarterback and Wide Receiver ahead of where it was at this time last season?

I've said before on Twitter that in my opinion, the ability to play man to man, single-high safety coverage is important to stopping the Tennessee offense. I could probably fill a separate newsletter with reasons why I think that way. In the games that I watched from last season, Ball State was not particularly good at playing this coverage. They seemed to show a trend of bringing pressure in third down situations, playing man behind it from very soft cushions – although I didn't have full game copies so I can't say for certain. This led to relatively easy conversions for opposing offenses. Being soft in man coverage probably won't work out too well against Tennessee's physically imposing outside wide receivers. The Vols should have plenty of opportunity to connect through the air in man coverage situations.

At this time last year the Vols were breaking in a new offense, and Joe Milton had won the quarterback competition through camp. The result was some hiccups in the opener – a 14-6 halftime lead on Bowling Green – and some huge missed opportunities against Pitt. The Vols should be much more polished in the passing game tonight hitting receivers in stride for big gains.

-Is this the [insert slot receiver here] breakout game?

I really think that it is. We've heard through fall camp that Jalin Hyatt has looked significantly better and is playing with more enthusiasm than he did last season. Jimmy Calloway has had an opportunity to show more consistency. And, it seemed like newcomer Squirrel White was being mentioned by coaches at every possible opportunity. These guys should have a chance to exploit Ball State's defensive alignment.

The Cardinals look to me like a 3-4 front that plays field/boundary rules. This means that they have a "bench" backer, an outside linebacker that always aligns to the short side of the field. Opposite this linebacker is a player that is built more like, and functions more like, a nickel than an outside linebacker. These players are typically force defenders, tasked with keeping the play on their inside shoulder. As a result, when they expand to cover wide receivers they do so from an "apex" alignment, splitting the difference between the receiver and the end man on the line of scrimmage.

Two safeties are usually aligned behind these force defenders providing coverage support. In my opinion these safeties tended to play a little lower than normal for the Cardinals last season. Ten to twelve yards deep is typical, but often Cardinal safeties were within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. This is probably opponent dependent, but still something that stood out.

For Tennessee's slot receivers this should all add up to free releases off of the line of scrimmage, space to run, and matchups on safeties – who are usually not as strong as corners in their coverage ability. The width that the Vols use offensively should further stress the Cardinals defensive alignment. My expectation is that hitches and slants/glance routes will be wide open on RPO plays, and the speed Tennessee has at the slot will be able to blow by safeties when they want to take a shot downfield. Can these players make big plays tonight when the ball comes their way? I think they can, which is why I sent out this tweet last night referring to Squirrel White.

Tennessee Defense

Tennessee is without question the much more athletic and talented team. Tonight that should be enough on its own for a win. But, they'll have to be disciplined against Ball State in order to make that win a proper blowout. Athlon's college football preview magazine offers snippets from opposing coaches in their team previews. An opposing MAC coach notes how well-coached Ball State is offensively, and how they use shifts and motions to get their best players in space. After watching Ball State play I would certainly agree with that brief summary.

-How will Tennessee use Byron Young?

One aspect of tonight that I'm very curious about is how the Vols will rush the passer tonight, especially with edge rusher Byron Young. Young was a force last season and is primed for a breakout year this year. Earlier this week on "Vol Calls" defensive coordinator Tim Banks was asked specifically about his unit improving on third downs. He gave a detailed response, and noted the need "for being able to have the right blitz patterns in place to give those guys a chance to come free." Without the privilege of being inside the program over the summer and through fall camp it's impossible to say what this looks like exactly. However, my hope is that this means more Creepers and more Young off the edge.

Creepers are loosely defined, but essentially they are four-man pressures where a second or third level defender rushes, and a first level defender drops off into coverage. Some may argue that, because only four players are rushing it's not technically a pressure. The point is that the defense is trying to bring a defender from the second level that the offense is not expecting, and therefore not accounting for. This allows the defense to effectively rush the quarterback while still using seven players in coverage. I didn't see a ton of this from Tennessee last year, but I'm curious if it was part of an effort to improve the pass rush.

I'm also interested in how Byron Young will be used. A year ago he was used in a variety of ways, but often Tennessee liked to loop him inside and pressure from the interior. Young's athleticism was usually too much for interior lineman to handle. The downside of rushing on the interior, though, is that if the stunt is picked up correctly you can get a double team from the guard and center that prevents the rush. Ball State returns all of their offensive linemen up front and should be a strength of their team. Despite being an undersized group, they do have experience handling different types of pressures. I hope to see Young coming off the edge tonight, getting one-on-one matchups against offensive tackles and collapsing the pocket from the outside.

-How does Tennessee go about limiting Jayshon Jackson in the passing game?

In the secondary Tennessee lost two draft picks in Theo Jackson and Alontae Taylor. Replacing their production will be critical to the success of this season, and Ball State will provide a surprising test from the jump. The Cardinals have two dangerous receivers in Yo'Heinz Tyler and Jayshon Jackson that you don't often find together on a MAC roster. At 6'3" and 205 lbs. Tyler is the bigger of the two, but he doesn't concern me as much. He has good ball skills and is reliable on third down. But, I think Jayshon Jackson is a much more dynamic player. They will move Jackson all over the field, motion him, and get him the ball at times in the run game with jet action. Jackson is dangerous with the ball in the open field, so a plan to shut him down will be important.

A large part of that plan will likely involve Tamrion McDonald. McDonald will be playing Tennessee's nickel position, taking over for Theo Jackson. By all accounts McDonald had a very strong fall camp. My expectation is that he'll frequently be aligned over Jayshon Jackson and tasked with covering him. That is because, while Ball State does move him around quite a bit, Jackson will often align in the slot and off the line of scrimmage. Coverage could look like bracketing him with the help of a safety, or playing man coverage on him and funneling Jackson toward a middle safety. Either way, I believe the Vols will pay close attention to Jayshon Jackson tonight, and McDonald's performance will go a long way to determining the outcome. Tyler and Jackson are good enough to make some plays, but if Tennessee plays to their potential and with disciple the Vols should be able to take these two away to a large extent.

One last time, thank you so much for spending some of your time reading this newsletter today. If you enjoyed the content please share it with someone else you think might enjoy it, too. If you want this kind of content sent directly to your email inbox, please consider becoming a subscriber.

Happy game day and GBO,