Chuckie Keeton represents the most challenging, versatile quarterback the Tennessee Volunteers will face all season.
If he's healthy, Utah State's 6'2", 200-pound senior signal-caller may be the best all-around player on the Vols' schedule.
He can beat teams with his arm and legs, something Todd Gurley, Amari Cooper and Mike Davis can't do. Nimble on his feet, accurate, strong-armed, smart and seasoned, Keeton is blessed with numerous attributes.
He's good enough that he has been the recipient of dark-horse Heisman Trophy buzz, and one national writer—Grantland.com's Michael Weinreb—even picked him to win.
Keeton is more than capable of starring and leading the Aggies to a stirring win that could shell-shock the young Vols and extinguish the positive vibes surrounding the program.
So, how does the young UT defense keep that from happening?
Hit Him Early, Often
It's no secret that Keeton tore his anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments last Oct. 4 against BYU, normally a devastating injury that can take more than a year to heal.
Yet, according to the Deseret News' Jeff Hunter, teammates and coaches believe Keeton appears better than ever.
Those are scary words for Tennessee, considering how electric Keeton can be and how few mistakes he makes. He even shines on the biggest stages.
|Keeton on the Big Stage|
|2013||USC||14-17, L||21/39||179||2-0||12-(minus 15)-0|
Regardless of how much lip service those around USU's program pay Keeton, there are always mental hurdles to get over when coming back from an injury of that magnitude.
The Vols have to do everything within the rules to keep Keeton from feeling comfortable.
USU returns just one starter on its offensive line, and the Vols must exploit that perceived fissure. A rusty quarterback—even one as skilled as Keeton—is more vulnerable behind a shaky line.
Rattling Keeton is easier said than done, especially considering UT's young, small and untested defensive line is the team's biggest question mark.
According to ESPN.com, UT hasn't cracked the league's top five in sacks since 2007. The past three years, Tennessee has finished last, last and next-to-last. Oh, and the Vols must replace all four starters from a season ago.
The Vols have gotten a surprising surge from freshman defensive end Derek Barnett, who earned a starting job with his relentless play. Curt Maggitt is healthy and moving well again, he told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required).
Corey Vereen was UT's best pass-rusher a season ago. The Vols also traded big, clunky defensive tackles for quicker starters—Danny O'Brien and Jordan Williams—and they both need to have a huge game.
UT's defensive front will attempt to use speed to counter speed. Williams told Volquest.com's Grant Ramey (subscription required):
Really, we have one true D-tackle in there, and that's [Danny O'Brien]. Everybody else is either an end or used to be a linebacker. I was a linebacker two years ago. [Corey] Vereen could've been one. So we have a lot of hybrid guys in there.
In theory, this approach seems like the right game plan. But when Sunday night comes, the Vols have got to get to Keeton and put him on the ground, something they've been historically bad at recently.
If he has time to throw, Keeton could have a field day.
Press Up Front, Shrink the Field
One of the most noticeable differences in Tennessee's fall camp with the infusion of so many defensive newcomers is the upgrade in team speed.
That was a major emphasis for coach Butch Jones in sculpting his first full recruiting class.
Now it's time for it to translate onto the field. Keeton provides a similar test to the one UT has failed so many times before.
|Dual-Threat Distress: UT's 2013 Failures Vs. Mobile QBs|
|Player, Team||Comp/Att/TD||Pass Yards||Rushes-Yards-TDs|
|Marcus Mariota, Oregon||23-33-4||456||6-44-1|
|Tyler Murray, Florida||8-14-1||134||10-90-1|
|Ross Metheny, South Alabama||21-42-0||234||10-75-2|
|Connor Shaw, South Carolina||7-21-1||161||19-96-1|
|Maty Mauk, Missouri||12-25-3||163||13-117-0|
|Nick Marshall, Auburn||3-7-1||35||14-214-2|
A study of UT's official 2013 statistics shows opposing quarterbacks had 701 rushing yards by themselves against the Vols a season ago, running for nearly 6.1 yards per carry. Tennessee simply couldn't stop it.
Now, they play a guy in Keeton who looked extremely familiar to another UT opponent:
"[Keeton] can make something out of nothing; just a real explosive guy," Williams told Volquest.com's Grant Ramey. "We're going to get after him. He throws pretty good when he's outside the pocket. We just have to get somebody in his face."
Containing Keeton is dicey. While the Vols want to force him to move, he throws well on the run. Also, as the statistics against dual-threat quarterbacks show, UT routinely fails to stay disciplined in its rush lanes.
All week, the Vols have been attempting to simulate Keeton's threat, but that's impossible when few in the nation possess his skill set:
If the ends and secondary do their job, UT may even be able to use a linebacker spy such as athletic sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin to follow Keeton like a shadow.
Keeton is a master at sucking in secondaries who come up to tackle him before he reaches the line of scrimmage. When that happens, the senior quarterback's arm is strong and accurate enough to beat the Vols for huge gains downfield.
Keeton is tough for any defense to defend. With 11 to 13 newcomers expected to play for coordinator John Jancek, the coach told GoVols247's Rucker, those guys must play beyond their years.
Take Away His Support System
Finally, Keeton has plenty of moxie, but he can't beat an SEC team on his own.
That's why containing receivers JoJo Natson, Ronald Butler and especially running back Joe Hill is a necessity. If UT can limit the running game and make USU one-dimensional, all of the focus can be shifted squarely on Keeton.
Hill, too, is returning from torn knee ligaments suffered last season. He is talented enough to be included on the Doak Walker Award watch list, but he will likely take a while to get reacclimated.
As for the receivers, Natson is electric, but at 5'7", 151 pounds, he isn't going to beat UT cornerbacks Cameron Sutton (6'1"), Emmanuel Moseley (5'11"), Michael Williams (5'11") or nickelback Justin Coleman (5'10") too often. Those guys are fast, too.
If Tennessee's talented cornerbacks can lock down Natson and Butler, Keeton is going to start pressing, believing he has to do everything himself. That's when the Vols will gain an advantage.
But they've got to accomplish it first.
The test that looms for the Vols isn't lost on anybody in orange, as they've spent months preparing for Keeton as much as a team can when he's not staring back across the line of scrimmage.
The Vols are not going to be able to escape with a victory unless they can harass Keeton, limit the playmakers around him and force him into some uncharacteristic miscues.
Stopping Keeton is asking the young Vols to do something few teams have in his illustrious career. But slowing him down, keeping him from breaking free for long runs and negating big plays will result in a 1-0 record heading into the season's second week.
All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted. Quotes and observations were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here: