Clemson Football: Oppo Research – Tennessee Volunteers
Well, the regular season did not end the way that ALL Clemson football fans wanted it to. I was always told that a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while, but a spur-less chicken does too apparently. Oh well, as they like to tell us, “Wait until next year” will come from the orange-clad fans for the first time in a decade.
The great news? Clemson won its 7th ACC Championship in the last 8 years, and 21st all-time, a record in the conference. A dominating performance against the North Carolina Tar Heels, and also a dawning of a new day as Freshman sensation Cade Klubnik relieved transfer-bound DJ Uiagalelei at Quarterback and led the offense and looked great doing it.
Now the Tigers are onto the postseason with a trip to the Orange Bowl in Miami.
This is your preview of the Orange Bowl opponent, the Tennessee Volunteers of the Southeastern Conference from Knoxville, Tennessee.
Head Coach Josh Heupel is concluding his second season in Knoxville, after coming to the SEC after a successful run as the head man at University of Central Florida. His record is 17-8 at UT, and 45-16 overall. He was the Offensive Coordinator in 2017, where the UCF Knights are recognized as a national champion by the NCAA record book. Heupel also had coaching stints at Missouri and Oklahoma, after his playing career, also at Oklahoma, concluded. His brief stint in the NFL led to holding a clipboard and not much more.
Tennessee currently sits at 10-2 on the season with the ten wins coming against (with scores): Ball State (59-10), Pittsburgh (34-27 OT), Akron (63-6), Florida (38-33), LSU (40-13), Alabama (52-49), Tennessee-Martin (65-24), Kentucky (44-6), Missouri (66-24) and Vanderbilt (56-0).
The two losses, which kept this former #1 ranked team out of the College Football Playoffs were to: Georgia (27-13), and South Carolina (63-38).
Head Coach Josh Heupel acts like his own Offensive Coordinator. He brings his high-tempo offense to Tennessee. His success was built with a former ACC quarterback Hendon Hooker leading the team. Heupel’s offense is pretty multiple, however chunk plays are a real staple of the offense. Hooker brought a big arm and was also a big threat to pull the ball down and extend plays as well. The offense averages 2.99 plays per minute of game time. If you think Clemson went fast under Chad Morris, this is Chad Morris on a case of Red Bull (I know, it was reported many times that Morris was a big fan of Red Bull, but you get my point.)
Like Clemson, the Vols were hit by the injury bug to some big named players as well as Opt Outs, and even a transfer of a contributor mixed in.
Quarterback Hendon Hooker tore his ACL in the 63-38 loss to our feathered “friends” in the midlands. He will miss the Orange Bowl and has completed his eligibility.
Wide Receiver and Biletnikoff Award winner for Best Wide Receiver, Jalin Hyatt has opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft in April. Hyatt had 67 catches for 1,267 yards and 15 touchdowns. He averaged 105.6 yards per game receiving. Clemson had only 1 100 yard receiver in a game all season (Cole Turner vs. UNC 12/8)
Wide Receiver Cedric Tillman has also opted out of the game. Tillman played in only 9 games amassing 37 catches with 417 yards and 3 touchdowns. He averaged 69.5 yards per game.
Linebacker Jeremy Banks has recently decided to opt-out of the Orange Bowl to get ready for the NFL draft. The redshirt Senior led the linebackers with 53 tackles including 33 of the solo variety.
Kick Returner Jimmy Holiday was the sole returner on kickoffs for the Vols. He had 14 returns for 281 yards. An average of 20.1 yards per return. He also added 6 catches for 106 yards and 2 touchdowns. 17.7 yards per catch. He has entered the transfer portal.
Wide Receiver Jimmy Calloway played in 9 games after being suspended against Florida and amassed only 20 yards receiving. He has also entered the transfer portal.
Offensive Depth Chart
Here is a look at the projected starters on Offense (based on my pure speculation due to opt-outs/transfers/injury; plus a couple of other notables to know:
QB: Joe Milton – Redshirt Senior. – 34-54; 720 yards; 7 TDs, 0 Ints
RB: Jaylen Wright – Soph – 135 att. 786 yards, 10 TDs; 5.8 yard avg.
RB: Jabari Small – Junior – 144 att. 696 yards, 12 TDs; 4.8 yard avg.
WR: Bru McCoy – Junior – 48 rec. 619 yards, 3 TDs; 12.9 yard avg.
WR: Remel Keyton – Senior – 27 rec. 486 yards, 4 TDs; 18.0 yard avg.
WR: Squirrel White – Frosh – 21 rec. 373 yards, 1 TD; 17.8 yard avg.
WR: Walker Merril – Soph – 8 rec. 116 yards, 3 TDs; 14.5 yard avg.
TE: Princeton Fant – Senior – 20 rec. 222 yards, 3 TDs; 11.1 yard avg.
TE: Jacob Warren – Senior – 12 rec. 163 yards, 0 TDs; 13.6 yard avg.
LT: Gerald Mincey – Redshirt Sophomore
LG: Jerome Carvin – Senior
C: Cooper Mays – Junior
RG: Javonte Spraggins – Junior
RT: Darnell Wright – Senior – First Team All-SEC
Quarterback Joe Milton played sparingly throughout the season only throwing the ball 54 times in relief of Hendon Hooker. Notable is that he has 7 touchdown passes to no interceptions. He also added 10.3 yards per rush this season in the backup role. Known for a big arm with little accuracy coming during his three years at the University of Michigan where he started just 8 games. He is not Hooker, but does have that big arm, and with Heupel calling the plays, expect to see that arm against the Clemson secondary.
One of the surprising things when looking at the Tennessee statistics for the season was the amount of rushing touchdowns that the running back room has accounted for. All the flash and dash that the Vols are known for, yet they seem extremely balanced. I have watched a number of their games and have looked at the film in preparation for this preview, and it still surprised me.
Junior Jabari Small has been listed as the starter in just about all of the public depth charts throughout the year, and his numbers are good. However, Sophomore Jaylen Wright is actually the leader in the clubhouse for yards (786). Small is right behind Wright with nearly 700 yards rushing. Add into the mix Freshman Dylan Sampson (397 yards; 6 TDs; 6.8 yard avg.) and this running back room is loaded. That’s 28 touchdowns between the three of them. That’s a really nice problem to have. Oh yes, they still do, and will sling it around the field too.
The WR room is the one that took the hits to opt-outs/transfer, especially at the top end of the roster. Hyatt caught 15 touchdowns and Tillman had 3. Nearly 1800 yards will not play in Miami on the 30th of December. With production lost like that, one would think it would get the younger guys some opportunities, however, the backups are all upperclassmen save one (Squirrel Wright), who is a freshman.
With how prolific the offense has been during the 2022 season, all is not lost if you are a Vols fan. The well-traveled Bru McCoy is actually (a distant) second on the team in receiving with 48 catches and 619 yards. Just 3 touchdowns, which pales in comparison to Hyatt, however McCoy is extremely talented. Senior Ramel Keyton will likely start as well, and has hauled in 27 catches in 2022.
Tennessee utilizes the tight ends in a lot of ways. The big guys catch passes as well as are involved in trick plays (of which Heupel employs many) and blocking to get the running backs space on the edge. Keep your eyes on Princeton Fant. As the old adage goes, if Tennessee is running the ball, the ball will follow where Fant is. He’s added 20 catches and 3 scores as well.
The offensive line has played a lot of football. All five of the starters are at least in their third year. Cooper Mays, brother of Cade, anchors the line at the Center position. Right Tackle Darnell Wright earned 1st team All SEC honors this season.
Offense by the Numbers
The offense has scored 568 points over 12 games for an average of 47.3 points per game. Tennessee has gained 6,457 total offensive yards on the season with 2,469 coming on the ground and 3,988 through the air; for averages of 205.8 rushing and 332.3 passing for a total of 538.1 (EYE POPPING) yards of total offense per game.
Onto the defensive side of the ball: Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks, like Heupel, is in his second season with the Volunteers. Banks brings an attacking style to Knoxville. He likes to send blitzes from multiple places and disguises his coverages in trying to get his players in position to turn the ball over. Banks has been around the college football world, having the title of Coordinator for the past 15+ years and 25 years overall as a collegiate coach. His stops along the way were at: Bowling Green, Ferris State, Memphis, Maryland, Central Michigan, Cincinnati, Illinois and Penn State, with the last four (not including Tennessee) being in that Defensive Coordinator role.
Here is a look at the projected starters (based on pure speculation on my part) for the defense:
LEO: Byron Young – Senior – 34 Tackles, 5 Sacks
DT: Da’Jon Terry – Redshirt Junior – 15 Tackles, 2 Sacks
DT: Omari Thomas – Junior – 25 Tackles, 2 Sacks
DE: LaTrell Bumphus – Redshirt Senior – 21 Tackles
MLB: Juwan Mitchell – Redshirt Senior – 41 Tackles, 1 Int.
MLB: Aaron Beasley – Senior – 64 Tackles, 1 Sack
WLB: Solon Page III – Senior – 27 Tackles, 1 Sack
CB: Christian Charles – Sophomore – 33 Tackles
CB: Deneiko Slaughter – Junior – 26 Tackles, 1 Int.
CB: Kamal Hadden – Junior – 42 Tackles, 2 Ints.
STAR: Tomarion McDonald – Junior – 50 Tackles; 1 Int.
S: Jaylen McCollough – Senior – 51 Tackles
S: Trevon Flowers – Senior – 57 Tackles, 1 Sack; 2 Ints.
This defensive front is serviceable. I hesitate to say really good, because they’ve been gashed by some lesser opponents throughout this season. However, there is talent up front. Led by Byron Young who lines up against the best match-up for the defense and uses a slew of moves to get to the quarterback. He has a team-leading 5 sacks on the season. Backup Senior Defensive Lineman Roman Harrison is second on the team with 3 sacks. Junior DL Tyler Baron has 2.5 in a reserve role as well. And finally, another name across the line to know is Da’Jon Terry who is a load at his defensive tackle position.
At the linebacking position, Tennessee is led by Senior Aaron Beasley, listed as a co-starter with Juwan Mitchell. Beasley leads the team in tackles with 64. On the weak side, Solon Page III steps into the starting role as a season-long starter Jeremy Banks has opted out in preparation for the NFL draft. This may be a good thing for the Tigers, as Banks may have been the most athletic linebacker Clemson has faced this season. Banks led the linebacking core with 33 solo tackles. As much as Coordinator Tim Banks likes to get pressure on the opposing quarterbacks, the linebackers do not have many sacks. I counted 4 among the entire room, including back-ups.
The secondary has been Swiss cheese this season and the biggest disappointment for Banks and the Volunteer fans. One of the worst statistical units in the country, ranking 127 (out of 131 FBS teams) in passing yards allowed. Yes, Clemson fans, worse than North Carolina (121 out of 131). There are some, ok maybe not some, bright spots though.
Corner Kamal Hadden and Safety Trevon Flowers both have two interceptions on the season. Even the passes defended statistic is not overwhelmingly good, with Tamarion McDonald with 6 for a team-high. Clemson needs to exploit this aspect of the Tennessee defense.
Defense by the Numbers
Tennessee, defensively, has yielded 282 points this season for an average of 23.5 points per game. They’ve allowed 1,341 yards on the ground for an average of 111.8 yards per game and 3,444 yards through the air for an average of 287.0. Total defense average yards given up is 398.8 yards per game.
Tennessee has 20 takeaways on the season with 9 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries. Opponents have 11 takeaways with 3 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries against the Volunteers. Tennessee is plus-9 in the turnover margin on the season.
Here are the projected starters on Special Teams:
Punter: Paxton Brooks – Senior – 39.0 yard average; long of 54 yards
Kicker: Chase McGrath – Redshirt Senior – 15-19 FGs, long of 51 yards
Kick Returner: Doneiko Slaughter – Junior – 1 return; 16 yard avg. (spot previously held by outgoing transfer Jimmy Holiday)
Punt Returner: Dee Williams – Junior – 19.4 yard average; long of 74 yards
My 2 Cents and Prediction
Winning the ACC is great, despite what media talking heads and opposing fans may say. The conference was not as down as the narrative may make it seem. North Carolina was a top-10 team with arguably the best QB in the country and Clemson went into Charlotte and took away their will. NC State was really good before Devin Leary went down. Wake, not sure what happened there, but that was a good football team. Syracuse is in the same conversation as Wake. Florida State is going to be the off-season media darling as they seemed prime to make a run, and Clemson handled them (don’t look at the box score to get your narrative). Sorry, soap-box moment. The point of the word salad is to say that winning the ACC was a grind this season, and the Tigers did it with mediocre quarterback play.
I love DJ Uiagalelei and wanted him to work out in Clemson so badly. It didn’t live up to expectations, time to move on. Cade Klubnik showed glimpses of greatness against a bad defensive backfield in North Carolina. Well, the freshman now faces a WORSE defensive backfield statistically. The question will be if Clemson OC Brandon Streeter draws up a game plan to exploit the obvious weakness of the Vols defense.
The Tennessee offense, even without Hooker and Hyatt are still going to be a tough matchup for the Tigers. Those running backs are REALLY good. The Vols beat Vanderbilt 56-0 and QB Joe Milton was 11-21 147 yards and 1 TD. They ran for 362 yards. It seems like that plays into the hands of the Clemson defense, but this RB room may be better than Florida State’s three-headed monster.
The Tennessee Volunteers that Clemson football faces Friday is a beat-up team
Tennessee is coming into the Orange Bowl as a beat-up group. The Vols are not good defensively, but that has been masked throughout the year by the explosiveness of the offense.
They were in a prime position to be in the Playoff for the majority of the season, even jumping up to #1 before losing to Georgia, thus leading to the opt-outs of the WRs. Hooker’s injury didn’t help either. I do think this will be a fun game regardless. Hopeful the Tigers can pull out the victory.
I’m 10-2 in picking the Tigers this season, and this will be a tough test, but I like where Clemson is going into this game, therefore I’m picking them again. Because, why not?!