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Tennessee's defense will have its 'hands full' Saturday vs. WVU


On paper, it's not pretty.

The last box score of Tennessee's defense shows a unit surrendering 529 yards of offense and 42 points in a blowout loss to Vanderbilt.

Nine months later, Tennessee's challenge is a tall one, tasked with trying to slow down a high-powered West Virginia offense as the Vols christen the Jeremy Pruitt era Saturday in Charlotte.

A year ago, the Mountaineers' offense led by All-American quarterback Will Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns to returning wideouts David Sills (18 touchdowns) and Greg Jennings (97 catches).

Grier, who tops some people's Heisman Trophy list, certainly has the respect of the Vols.

"(Will Grier) is very talented,” Pruitt said. “He can make all the throws, beat you with his feet and extend plays. He's a runner. He's tough. He has experience.”

While Grier has experience, Tennessee's cornerbacks have little to none. On one side will be true freshman Alontae Taylor. The other side features junior Baylen Buchanan, who has one career start and one PBU in his two years of play. Buchanan only played in six games a year ago.

When Tennessee goes to their multiple defensive back packages that inexperience is expected to grow with true freshman Trevon Flowers and maybe Bryce Thompson on the field.

For Pruitt, it's simply about playing the best players and he believes the work of those freshmen over the last month has them prepared for the opportunity they get on Saturday.

"I think our guys guard pretty good receivers everyday,” Pruitt said. “I think these guys are competitive, but they are still learning the position. They do not have a whole lot of experience playing the position, but all across the country this week there will be guys playing something for the first time in college football.

"To me, I look at it as an opportunity, that's why they came to the University of Tennessee. They want to play in big games like this. They want to play on the biggest stage, and if you are made the right way, that's what they want to do, and they will be ready for it."

It's not just the Mountaineers passing attack that the Vols must contend with. West Virginia averaged 150 yards rushing last season and Grier can hurt teams with his legs in their up tempo attack.

“I think their whole offense is really good,” linebacker Darrell Taylor said. “They have a decent offensive line and a really good quarterback. I think if we do our job then we should be fine.”

The Vols are also banking on being fine in part with the arrival of Pruitt. The first year head coach has been praised for his teaching ability and certainly the confidence he has given the entire team, particularly the defense.

Interestingly, Pruitt's first year defenses have been a mixed bag. His first defense at Florida State only gave up more than 17 points twice in the 2013 season. His first year defense at Georgia gave up more than 17 points in 7 of 13 games. While his first defense at Alabama in 2016 gave up more than 17 points just three times.

On Saturday, Tennessee kickoffs the 2018 season with unknowns on offense and unknowns on defense. After a horrific 2017 season highlighted by arguably the worst defense in school history, the Vol faithful are banking on Pruitt and his scheme being the X-factor.

All eyes will be on him as his unit gets a huge early season test in Charlotte.