Friday, September 26, 2008

Special Guest Enemy: Hooper of Rocky Top Talk

In its continuing efforts to bring you the reader the most informed coverage possible--or, rather, just more informed than I usually am--the JCCW has once again enlisted the help of an outside expert in preparing you for Saturday's game. This week's victim guest is Hooper of Rocky Top Talk, the Interwebs' leading Vol blog. My Q's are in bold, his A's in quotes, as always. And while I doubt I offered Vol fans anything Jay didn't already in his RTT podcast, my responses on Auburn are up and available here. Enjoy.

1. First things first: how much is riding on this game for Phil Fulmer? If he drops this one and the Georgia game to slip to 2-4, is there any way back for him, even given that the schedule softens down the stretch?

"I may get in trouble with my response here, but I'm going to say what I think is the most accurate answer: nothing is riding on this game for Fulmer. We as a fanbase had very high expectations for the season, and our pride had been injured by the start. A lot of discontent had been under the surface from things like the 2005 season and a lack of SEC championships. The start of this season was the tipping point. Fulmer-bashing is now 'fashionable' for the most vocal parts of the fanbase, and they're going to feed off each other.

"The Vols would have to win in a convincing fashion for most of the games on the schedule. That would keep Fulmer from being bought out for a year (it'd cost about $5.5 million). The next year would then be the make-or-break. The finances may be prohibitive, but if it were up to knee-jerk emotion, he's a dead man walking." (Quick note: for further reading on the Fulmer situation, you should absolutely check out Lawvol's reluctant request that Fulmer step down at Gate21. Gripping stuff.--ed.)

2. How much encouragement do you take from Tennessee's ability to occasionally move the ball against the Gators, even if those long drives didn't necessarily end in points?

"Personally, I take quite a bit of encouragement. It has to be tempered with the understanding that Florida was playing kill-the-clock for most of the game, and the two longest drives took about 2/3 of a quarter to run. But it was still effective movement that gave our defense a rest - a huge improvement from the UCLA game. I think there's a fantastic and powerful offense under the hood, just waiting for the throttle to be opened up. Once they get the timing belt adjusted, the offense should show dramatic improvement.

"But then again, I think that Auburn's defense is worlds better than Florida's. So we may not be able to see an improvement, even if it exists."

3. How much improvement has Jonathan Crompton shown between the UCLA game and now? What does Tennessee need from him Saturday night and what do you think they'll actually get from him?

"Crompton's accuracy has improved. In the UCLA game, he was spraying the ball around the field. In Florida, his passes were much more on-target except when he was under duress. Likewise, in the UCLA game, he never read through his receiver progressions. UCLA figured that out and had up to 3 defenders spying Crompton. Against Florida, he found secondary targets just often enough to keep a little honesty in the defense. He still showed some panic under duress, though. The end-zone INT against Florida was a case of forcing the issue. But he's a fighter, too. He doesn't like to slide when he runs, and he'll give full effort on every play. He's not afraid of a hit.

"UT needs two things from him: leadership and a lack of mistakes. During the pring, he showed energy and signs of leadership that Ainge never showed. It hasn't been apparent yet this season, so we'll see if it picks up. The mistakes ... I addressed that already. I expect fewer mistakes and a bit more enthusiasm, but I also expect a game plan that limits his responsibilities, so it might be a wash."

4. Both of our teams are "adjusting to" or "struggling under" (depending on how polite you'd like to be) new offensive coordinators. What is Dave Clawson bringing--or trying to bring--to the table and why hasn't it succeeded thus far?

"Clawson is one of the most intriguing aspects of UT football right now. Over the summer, UT fans worked themselves into a lather about the new 'Clawfense,' though we knew absolutely nothing about it. Most people settled on it being a West Coast offense, though his offensive stats don't support that theory. Ideally, I think the offense would be about 55% run, with a passing game that uses slants to keep LBs honest and a variety of receiver routes to freeze the safeties. I don't think it relies heavily on timing routes like a West Coast offense really does. (Side note: this is why WCOs never work in college. No college team has the time required to train an offense into an array of timing routes.) The real focus of the Clawfense seems to be finding favorable matchups, exploiting them early, then running plays designed to exploit the subsequent defensive adjustments. A few of these matchups are: Gerald Jones in open space, Hardesty running in the middle, Foster running around the edge, and our tight ends single-covered by LBs or a safety. But even that's speculation; Tony Basilio reported earlier that something like 60% of Clawson's playcalls are getting overruled. If that's the case, then we truly have not seen the Clawfense.

"In a wider view, I believe the reason the offense hasn't worked is because the offense makes too many mistakes. On pass plays, Crompton locks onto his primary target and tips the play to the defense. Foster is hesitant when he runs up the middle, so there's little need to respect that play when he's in. Hardesty has been working well, but he's second in depth behind Foster so we don't see him as much. Clawson has never had the opportunity to use a counterpunch because the offense has never established the initial punch well enough.

"Here's a tip: keep a tally of the significant mistakes that UT's offense makes in the first half. The higher that tally goes, the less effective the offense will be in the second half. Let's set an arbitrary threshold of 5. Less than 5 and the second half should be fun for Vols fans. More than 5, and it'll get ugly fast."

5. After going nowhere on the ground against LSU, we Auburn fans would like to see some push up front this weekend, especially since the Vol secondary looks to be much, much tougher than LSU's. How would you grade out the play of your front seven so far and how do you feel they match up with the Auburn offensive line?

"Let me edit that last question for you: 'How would you grade out the play of your front seven four so far and how do you feel they match up with the Auburn offensive line?' Our defensive coordinator, John Chavis, has appeared to have found the football equivalent to Tom Cruise's Scientology in his Mustang Defense. He's a fanatical believer in it to the exclusion of all other alternatives, but it makes absolutely no sense to the rest of us. Here's the Mustang sieve defense: 4 down linemen, 3 LBs playing about 10 yards deep, and 4 DBs playing the softest zone you've ever seen. We watched that defense for the entire second half of the UCLA game, when we were leading by only one score. So let me grade it this way: the front seven four play very well, but Auburn will undoubtedly figure out a halftime adjustment that UT will never counter. They'll match up well, but they'll get outschemed."

6. Obligatory "players to watch" question: give us some players to watch who have flown under the radar for Tennessee thus far this year.

"It's hard to find players who are 'under the radar' on our team; we've been pretty obsessive about analyszing every little detail of the team so far. The obvious ones are Eric Berry(SAF), Rico McCoy (LB), Brent Vinson (CB), Dennis Rogan (PR), Gerald Jones (WR/QB), and the running backs. But if you really want to know how the game's going to go early, watch the lines. Specifically, watch what kinds of rush/blitz packages UT must defend on offense. If Auburn throws confusing stuff like zone blitzes at Crompton, we're probably doomed. On defense, assume that Chavis will never call a blitz. So if the 4 linemen can't get through Auburn's O-line, expect long time-consuming Auburn drives that end in scores. Our lines are good (very good, in my opinion), but they get absolutely no help."

7. I'm guessing by the Brandon James debacle that the effort to replace to Britton Colquitt has not gone smoothly, and between that and Daniel Lincoln's rough outing against UCLA I'm imagining Vol fans aren't so happy with their special teams units. Any hope for improvement against Auburn?

"I'd really like to pin the Brandon James problem on the backup punter; that'd be the easiest fix. But I honestly believe the backup punter didn't do anything wrong; the punt hung in the air long enough for reasonable punt coverage. Instead, I blame the six missed tackles, including the one where two potential tacklers ran into each other and blocked themselves quite nicely. The other thing to remember is that Brandon James has done this to UT three years in a row (the first was called back on a penalty). It's not a matter of a backup punter; it's a matter of doing the exact same thing without adjustment and expecting different results.

"I'm a little softer on Daniel Lincoln. The OT field goal should have been made, no question. But the other misses were all 50+ yarders at the limit of his range. At any rate, if we're blaming the loss to UCLA on field goal kicking, UT is indeed a horrible team. That game should never have come down to field goal kicking.

"But you're right; special teams are a sore point. Most people point the finger at coaching - more honestly, the complete lack thereof - and I tend to agree. UT has position coaches cover individual aspects of special teams rather than hiring a true special teams coach. (E.g. the receivers coach may handle the punt returners.) I have two problems with UT's approach. First, it doesn't lend itself to cohesiveness. We have a bunch of different individual units on the field rather than one group of 11 players. Second, it doesn't work. We've had tackling and blocking (see: UCLA punt block; also: first half of last year) problems for a long time, and they don't get better. That's a coaching problem.

"So no, I don't expect improvement. Instead, I hope that Auburn doesn't place the priority on special teams that UCLA and Florida did. UT can't overcome a special teams touchdown by Auburn; the Tigers defense is just too good."

8. Lastly, if you had to pick a single key to Saturday's game, the one thing Tennessee HAS to do to come out with a win, what is it? Please tell me it's "wear orange pants." 'Cause I like the pants.

"Heh. The pants. If it weren't for the disastrous start, those pants would be the primary argument in Vol-land. I kinda hope they wear the orange pants too, but I'll avoid those for the sake of my own hide. Here's what Tennessee HAS to do, and this is no joke:

"When (not if) the first (and maybe even the second and third) mistake is made, they need to accept the mistake and move on. Against Florida, the first mistake was the kickoff return for over 50 yards. That took the crowd out of the game. The second mistake was the jump-pass TD with nobody covering the TE. That took the defense out of the game. The third mistake was the personal foul on Foster. That took Foster out of the game. The fourth mistake was the punt-return-TD. That took everybody out of the game. You could see the panic in the players' and coach's (singular) eyes. Game = over.

"UT will make mistakes. They must remember that the game goes on, and that Auburn will also make mistakes. Fortunately for UT, this is a road game. When the first mistake is made, they won't have to endure boos from their own fans."

One brief response on the Fulmer situation, not that anyone in Knoxville really cares about what I have to say on the matter: if it really is a positive for Tennessee that they're playing Auburn (not some plucky mid-major but Auburn) in Jordan-Hare Stadium rather than Neyland, yeah, it's time for a change. If you don't have home-field advantage, you don't have a sustainable program in the SEC, period. It's too bad; Fulmer deserves better.

Thanks again to Hooper and be sure to check out his work at Rocky Top Talk.


Robert said...

60% of Clawson's play calls are being overruled (presumably by the guy who hired him)???? Wow. Words fail.

hooper said...

Minor correction: the phrase used on Basilio's radio show was "a significant percent", not "sixty percent". And Basilio was specific that Clawson's play was called into the huddle. So the change was within the huddle, not at the sideline. That takes the onus off Fulmer and onto Crompton for the changes in playcalls. But still.