Cainer’s Corner: South Carolina Game Mailbag

By: Eric Cain / @_Cainer

Each week during the 2020 Tennessee football season, Eric Cain will call for your questions to answer in a Friday afternoon post. If you have a question on Tennessee, its opponent or anything in between – please email Cainer: eric.cain@cumulus.com.

You can also tweet him at @_Cainer or find him on Facebook at Cainer On-Air.

 

Week 1: South Carolina

Saturday, September 26

7:30 pm ET —  Williams-Brice Stadium

Columbia, S.C.

 

Henry To’o To’o – Vols LB / Credit: UT Athletics

Tennessee opens the season as 3.5-point favorites on the road in Columbia. The Vols carry a six-game win-streak into the outing dating back to last season where the streak started with a 41-21 victory over the Gamecocks inside Neyland Stadium on October 26.

The win also snapped an 0-7 record against head coach Will Muschamp, dating back to his days at Florida.

Though the Vols own a 26-10-2 record all-time versus South Carolina with a 9-7-2 record on the road, UT seeks its first win at Williams-Brice Stadium since the 2014. The Vols have lost two-straight at the venue.

Jeremy Pruitt enters year No. 3 as head coach of the Volunteers and boasts 15 returning starters on offense and defense with a bevy of contributors back for 2020. Tennessee recently announced a contract extension for Pruitt – through the 2025 season – which comes with a $400,000 raise up to $4.2 million annually beginning in 2021.

Will Muschamp brings back a veteran club on defense with two of the best defensive players in the conference. On offense, first-year coordinator Mike Bobo pegged graduate transfer Colin Hill as the Gamecocks day one starter under center – as the two know each other very well from Colorado State.

Kickoff will be at 7:30 pm ET and the game can be heard right here on The Sports Animal.

 

Question: “If Cade Mays gets cleared today, could he still travel?” – Bill on Facebook.

Cainer’s Take: I’m being told the team plans to depart for Columbia early this afternoon. Maybe 1 or 2 o’clock ET. I’m also being told it’s unlikely Mays will travel if not given the greenlight beforehand. Jeremy Pruitt said earlier this week the team will travel 70 players and will play 70 players. I don’t think the coaching staff wants to waste any spots on the plane. As always, things can change.

 

Question: “What’s more likely? UT gives up 0 sacks or JG (or QB2) throws 0 INTs? UT rushes for 150+ yds or UT passes for 250+ yds? SC records a defensive TD or UT records a special teams TD?” Adam on Facebook.

Cainer’s Take: I’ll work in chronological order here.

First, I’ll say it’s more likely Tennessee’s offensive line doesn’t surrender a sack. Even without Cade Mays or the potential of Darnell Wright or Wanya Morris not in the starting lineup – this Volunteers front-five is experienced and nasty. They have all played together and have been battle tested. The sack numbers improved gradually a season ago, but the QB hits were drastically decreased.

Second, both are very possible and both could happen. But I’ll go with the 150+ rushing yards. Since you didn’t clarify a single player, that is a team stat and I believe Eric Gray and Ty Chandler can combine for over 150 yards behind that offensive line any game of the year.

Lastly, defensive touchdowns are probably easier to obtain in today’s NFL with the kickoffs virtually non-existent anymore. Luckily, we still see some returns in the college game. And for that reason, I’ll say Tennessee scoring on special teams. Newcomer Velus Jones Jr. was an All-Pac 12 returner and Bryce Thomson is always dangerous with the ball in his hands.

Question: “What do we know about the SC starting QB?” – Scott on Twitter

Cainer’s Take: I know he’s a tough guy. Colin Hill is coming off his third (!!!) ACL tear throughout his collegiate career. It takes some type of work ethic and mental toughness to overcome all those setbacks and be in line to be a starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.

Hill was solid at Colorado State. Not great, but serviceable when healthy.

He stands in at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and has appeared in 18 games with 11 starts in four years. Hill has thrown for over 3,300 yards with 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing 60 percent of his passes. He owns a career 137.7 QB rating.

Jeremy Pruitt said earlier this week that Hill “knows the system” and is familiar with offensive coordinator Mike Bobo – who varied his offense a little while at Colorado State, but ultimately stuck with the pro-style mindset. Hill will be under center a lot of the time and South Carolina will employ multi-tight end sets with the use of a fullback and H-back from time-to-time.

Kind of like what Tennessee tries to do.

Bottom line, Bobo wanted a quarterback that knew the offense day one. He might not be the starter all season long, but he will be against the Volunteers. With Hill knowing the offense, it’s up to him to make some plays while the other 10 guys are playing catch-up.

 

Question: How will the Vols young receivers stack up against South Carolina’s secondary? How good is South Carolina’s defense this year?” – Parker on Twitter

Cainer’s Take: South Carolina returns starters at all three levels of the defense, including preseason All-SEC selections in defensive backs Israel Makuamu and Jaycee Horn, as well as defensive lineman Aaron Sterling and linebacker Ernest Jones.

Makaumu (4 INTS) and Jones (97 tackles) are the two impact players and both led the defense is those respected categories last year. The Gamecock defense gave up just under 400 yards per game in 2019, which finished closed to the bottom in the conference.

Like Tennessee in many areas, experience is the best teacher. South Carolina will be playing confident over there with the returners and are coached well by Muschamp. This sets up a tough matchup for Tennessee’s inexperienced receiver group.

Josh Palmer is now the No. 1. Brandon Johnson has been here forever. Those guys know what to expect. For Tennessee, it’s about getting Cedric Tillman, Ramel Keyton and Velus Jones Jr. involved early and bringing along freshmen Jalen Hyatt, Jimmy Holliday, Jimmy Calloway and Malachi Wideman.

I expect this group to be fine the more it plays. Saturday might not be a highlight reel for them, but I believe some plays will be made. Hopefully, they come at crucial points in the game.

Question: “How do you think the Vols Defense will do against the GameCocks revamped offense in this game? How do we stack up?” — @GoVols1914 on Twitter

Cainer’s Take: It’s a new system for South Carolina this year – and it’s game one. It won’t be perfect, and Tennessee needs to take advantage of that. The Gamecock 2019 offensive unit finished near the bottom of the league in total offense, but did protect the football fairly well (14 turnovers was 5th-best in SEC, 20th-best in country).

It helps that Colin Hill knows the system and will be under center, but Tennessee returns eight starters and a ton of experience on the opposing side of the ball. The Vols will play upwards of nine defensive linemen in this game – and that’s okay. Remember, strength is numbers with that unit. The hope is Derrick Ansley can play Aubrey Solomon some (missed some practice) and the line will play with more physicality – a concern during fall camp.

Linebackers are a huge question outside of Henry To’o To’o. Both Quavaris Crouch and Jeremy Banks will play on the inside, but Tennessee needs to identify a clear pass-rusher on the edge to replace the production of Darrell Taylor. That position will be by committee as well, with Kivon Bennett leading the way.

The secondary is going to be good, or it should be. It returns four starters and plugs in junior Trevon Flowers at strong safety this season. It has depth as well with freshmen Keyshawn Lawrence and Donieko Slaghter pushing for playing time.

I think Tennessee’s defense, if playing physical, is set of for better success Saturday compared to South Carolina’s new offense.

Question: “With all the uncertainty that is COVID-19 contact tracing, how do you think it will impact the game? Many players missing a lot of practice time which COULD cause a lot of fundamental break downs such as poor tackling, broken assignments and coverage break downs.” – James on Twitter

Cainer’s Take: Well said. In fact, I don’t know if I have much to add to this. (watch me type 500 words)

Yeah, Tennessee has had an issue with Knox County’s COVID-19 contact tracing protocols. It’s caused the Volunteers to sometimes miss upwards of 50 players at a time for practices that spanned over a two-week stretch. Jeremy Pruitt said four players (one being Wanya Morris) have been quarantined twice.

It’s hard to get better when you’re not on the practice field. For that reason, I believe Jahmir Johnson starts out at left tackle game one with the hope of Morris seeing the field for a few series. That’s just one example that I know of and there very well could be more. Jeremy Pruitt said Wednesday that he will no longer be announcing the COVID numbers as it’s ‘not fair to the players who are going to play.’

I also think he views it as a competitive disadvantage.

So, yes. I believe this game will be very sloppy. Poor tackling for sure. Ugly special teams. Maybe some missed assignments here and there. But Tennessee has a lot of experience in key areas (OL, QB, RB, DL, secondary). It will need to rely on that experience to make up for some fundamental lapses here and there due to the missed practice time.

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