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Is Tennessee's Secondary Ready for Oklahoma's Passing Game?

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If contending the SEC requires a team to build depth, upstart Tennessee will soon learn where it stands.

The Volunteers were a preseason top 25 team for the first time since 2008, largely on the talent of the first stringers. Josh Dobbs is as solid as any quarterback as any in the SEC in 2015. Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara make up one of the better running back duos. Derek Barnett is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and Curt Maggitt isn’t far behind. Two returning starters in the secondary, corner Cam Sutton and safety Brian Randolph, where Athlon second-team All-SEC selections.

The cracks in Tennessee’s ability to contend in the SEC East may be found upon closer examination of the depth chart. The Volunteers learned that tough lesson in the opener against Bowling Green.

When Oklahoma visits Tennessee for the first game between ranked teams in Knoxville since 2012, the Sooners almost certainly will try to follow the Bowling Green method to beating Tennessee.

Tennessee lost two de facto starters during the preseason when nickel Rashaan Gaulden was lost for the season to a foot injury and safety LaDarrell McNeil was sidelined indefinitely with a neck injury.

Even with the corner Sutton locking down one side of the field and the veteran Randolph at safety, Bowling Green tested Tennessee downfield in the passing game and hand enough success to the keep the Volunteers nervous for three quarters.

Bowling Green converted nine pass plays of 20 yards or more against the Tennessee defense. No team in the country had more such plays in the first week of the season.

Oklahoma, with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator culled from the Air Raid, wasn’t far behind in Week 1 with six pass plays of 20 yards or more against Akron.

The Tennessee secondary undoubtedly knows Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield, who didn’t play OU’s 34–10 win in Norman last year, will come into Neyland Stadium targeting Tennessee’s onetime backups in the secondary.

“I don’t think it will be a concern at all,” Sutton said. “A lot of those things are at the line — having good technique, wedging receivers, things like that. Those are things we can get better at.”

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That’s the story Tennessee is trying to tell after giving up 433 passing yards and two touchdowns in the opener against Bowling Green. The secondary has nowhere to go but up.

Indeed, Tennessee says its pass defense should improve by Week 2, if for no other reason than the young Vols’ DBs got the first game out of the way.

Though the two starters with Sutton and Randolph (corner Emmanuel Moseley and safety Malik Foreman) played last season, three defensive backs were seeing their first college action — true freshmen Darrell Miller and Micah Abernathy and junior college transfer Justin Martin.

“We had a lot of guys in our secondary where this was their first game,” Sutton said. “Guys are eager to be out there, anxious to be out there. You’ve got to calm them down. After the first few plays, they settled in. Sometimes you bounce back and make plays.”

Tennessee also has reason to believe communication will be better when Oklahoma visits — and not just because some of the more green members of the secondary will have the first game of 2015 under their belts.

The Volunteers surprised their own players when they announced secondary coach Willie Martinez would be suspended for the game due to a secondary violation of NCAA rules stemming from impermissible contact with a recruit in 2014.

Not having Martinez, a DB coach at Tennessee, Auburn, Oklahoma and Georgia since 2001, in the press box removed one key set of eyes for a secondary already down on numbers.

“It has an impact from a communication standpoint,” Jones said. “Coach Martinez brings so much from the box. Not having him available, I think, hurt us. I’m not going to stay it didn’t.”

And then there’s the possibility Bowling Green was simply that good in the passing game. Quarterback Matt Johnson missed all but one game in 2014 with a hip injury. In his last full season as a starter in 2013, Johnson passed for 3,467 yards with 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a MAC championship squad.

Now healthy, Johnson completed 27-of-49 passes for 424 yards and two touchdowns against Tennessee

“I’ll be honest with you: Players make plays,” Jones said. “There were a few throws they made and catches where you couldn’t have been more perfect. We had perfect coverage.”

Perhaps Bowling Green had a perfect storm situation against the Tennessee defense — a game the Vols won by 29, mind you — but it’s one Oklahoma may have the ability to replicate.