Position edges: Tennessee vs. Appalachian State
No. 9 Tennessee hosts Appalachian State to open the 2016 season on Thursday night.
The ninth-ranked Vols look to start with an impressive first impression to the new season being SEC East favorites. Appalachian State returns 17 starters from an 11-win season in 2015, and are no stranger to winning in their program’s history.
When Tennessee has the ball
QB Josh Dobbs vs. Appalachian State’s defense
Dobbs is veteran that will again use his arm and legs to his advantage – and his strategic mind to know when to use each.
Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara in the backfield and Preston Williams, Ethan Wolf, Josh Smith, Josh Malone and others within the offense – the Volunteers offense will be tough to contain.
The Vols have worked hard this offseason on stretching the field. How successfully and frequently they can do that Thursday night will be a key area to watch.
Tennessee’s RBs vs. Appalachian State’s run defense
Tennessee’s Run CMG of Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and Josh Dobbs is a three-headed monster with their ground-game.
Linebacker John Law will anchor the Mountaineers defense. The senior linebacker can do it all with 136 career total tackles, 17.5 TFLs, seven sacks and six interceptions.
Law will have his biggest test since going against Clemson last season, he will need that experience Thursday night.
Tennessee has scored a rushing touchdown in 15 consecutive games, its longest streak since 2001.
WR Preston Williams vs. DB Mondo Williams
This will be a matchup to watch, Preston Wilson’s freakish athletic set, standing at 6-4, 209, against the 5-11, 175-pound cornerback. Mondo Williams likes to get physical with bigger opponents, but will need to be careful in man-to-man schemes with Preston Williams’ break-away ability and going up for the ball.
Edge: Preston Williams
When Tennessee is on defense
QB Taylor Lamb vs. Tennessee’s defense
Lamb, a junior, completed 60 percent of his passes and threw 31 touchdown passes last season. He’s expected to have another solid season and again put the Mountaineers in contention for the Sun Belt championship. But Thursday night obviously will be different.
Lamb will be hurried by a fierce pass rush and often throwing against an athletic secondary.
He had his worst game last year against Clemson — 9-for-28 for 95 yards, with 3 interceptions. His first start at Appalachian in 2014 was at Michigan. So he’s at least used to the noise, if not the overall talent disadvantage.
RB Marcus Cox vs. Tennessee’s run defense
Marcus Cox is a 4,000-yard running back, and like Lamb, is expected to help Appalachian State contend for a conference title.
He ran for 103 yards last season against Clemson.
He enters the 2016 season as the nation’s second-leading active rusher (behind only San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey, 4,272 career yards). Cox is 716 yards shy in breaking Kevin Richardson’s school record of 4,804 career rushing yards. Richardson ran for a team-high 88 yards in the Mountaineers’ epic upset of No. 5 Michigan in 2007.
Cox’s career average is 113.6 yards per game, which will be tough to come close to in Bob Shoop’s Tennessee debut.
Appalachian State WRs vs. Tennessee DBs
Appalachian State returns Shaedon Meadors, a 6-2, 185-pound deep threat. Seven of his receptions went for more than 20 yards in 2015.
Jaquil Capel also returns and will be the “Z” starting receiver. At 5-11, 190, the senior receiver brings a steady possession-type security blanket for Lamb in the passing game.
The Mountaineer receivers will be tested against the depth, athleticism and coverage abilities that the Tennessee secondary brings.
Both teams are solid in their special teams.
The Mountaineers return Bentlee Critcher at punter. The senior punted 51 times with a 43.4 punt average and was fourth in the conference and 37th in the country.
Appalachian State will start a freshman kicker in Michael Rubino. Tennessee will have Aaron Medley back and his strong leg. Medley has missed some timely kicks during his first two seasons on Rocky Top, but his strong leg will give him a chance to improve on his accuracy.
Trevor Daniel also returns for Tennessee at punter. Daniel averaged 45.7 yards per punt, setting a school record with a minimum of 50 punts.
Evan Berry is the difference maker. Butch Jones said his All-American is healthy, ready and looking to add to his three touchdown kickoff returns.