Tennessee coach Butch Jones admitted it was on his mind immediately following the Austin Peay win.
"Western Kentucky has our attention," Jones said bluntly on The Butch Jones Show.
For good reason, too. Truthfully, Jones has probably been scheming for the season's second game for months. Not only do the Hilltoppers have some NFL talent on defense, but Bobby Petrino's offense was meticulous and methodical in beating another Southeastern Conference opponent, Kentucky, 35-26 last Saturday.
For a Vols team that will start one true freshman cornerback (Cameron Sutton) and rotate in at least two more, Petrino's offense is at best a worthy warm-up to upcoming back-to-back road trips to Oregon and Florida. At worst, it's enough to put UT on upset alert.
The Vols' inexperience will almost certainly lead to inevitable mistakes. Coupled with Petrino's offensive intelligence, that's a concerning concoction.
A prime example of the ups and downs Tennessee expects this season came in freshman cornerback Malik Foreman's first career game. Though Foreman broke perfectly on a pass for a fourth-quarter interception on the Vols' 6-yard line to preserve the shutout over Austin Peay, he also was picked on a few times, including a 35-yard completion on a busted coverage.
Those mistakes will be costlier against better opponents.
Said Jones of his cornerbacks:
They're very, very young, inexperienced but very talented. They're extremely competitive. They have great competitive character, and I think that showed in Malik (Saturday). As we move forward, we're going to be tested even more, and will there be growing pains? Absolutely. But I thought (Saturday) was a good fundamental start for our entire team.
While nobody is going to panic seeing WKU on the schedule, this is not a game Tennessee can overlook at this point in the program's rebuild, because the Vols will lose.
WKU quarterback Brandon Doughty was exceptional in the Hilltoppers' win over the Wildcats. He finished 27-of-34 for 271 yards and a touchdown, and according to the Associated Press (h/t ESPN), those numbers "would have been better if not for at least four drops including a would-be touchdown."
That's stellar against any SEC defense, and though Kentucky's secondary is as inexperienced and not as talented as UT's, it won't be difficult for an offensive guru like Petrino to expose weaknesses in a defense if they're there.
The Vols will struggle at times in the secondary; you can't expect freshmen to be consistent this early in the season.
"My biggest thing to them is: How are we going to handle adversity?" Jones said. "How are we going to handle when we give up a big play? That's the mark of great defenses: They forget easily."
Throw in concerns that none of the Vols' three best pass-rushers—Curt Maggitt, Corey Vereen and Jacques Smith—played in the opener, and there's no guarantees for this week, either. That means even more potential strain on the secondary.
Senior safety Byron Moore knows all about the challenge that awaits. He was part of that 2011 UT defensive backfield that was torched at Arkansas for 245 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 49-7 thumping. He said the Vols will cram all week for Petrino's scheme, which he called "tricky" because of all the different receiver route concepts he throws at teams:
Obviously, we've been telling them all summer, they've got to grow up quick. They know they've got the target on their back, and they welcome the challenge. That's one thing I like about them.
It's time for the next step in this growth process for the youngsters, and it's going to be a big one.
All quotes used in this story were transcribed from press conference and practice videos posted on UTsports.com.
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