KNOXVILLE — Tunnel vision and paranoia often combine in college football coaches to cause hyperbole.
Nearly every week, they claim their opponent has at least one player or one position group that rivals any in the nation. This week for Tennessee, that might again be true.
First-year Volunteers coach Derek Dooley and his players’ praise of Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green is not widely considered considered an exaggeration.
“They’ve got probably the best player in college football playing receiver,” Dooley said. “The guy’s unbelievable. That’s the No. 1 challenge.”
Green might have a hard time making Heisman Trophy lists or All-America teams after being suspended for the season’s first four games, but his talent belongs in the same breath with the nation’s best.
Despite struggling with cramps throughout the second half of his return last week at Colorado, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Green caught seven passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns — including an acrobatic, one-handed, scoring catch that surely will stand up as a play-of-the-year nominee. He also made a 40-yard run.
UT secondary coach Terry Joseph said “that game he played against Colorado separates him from all other guys in America.”
“A.J. Green is spectacular,” said UT senior middle linebacker Nick Reveiz. “One game back and he’s already made the play of the season so far. You can’t replicate a guy like that. He’s incredible.”
What, then, can the Vols do to contain him Saturday afternoon?
“It’s going to be a big challenge for us,” Vols sophomore safety Prentiss Waggner said. “A.J. Green is probably the best receiver in the nation; probably the best overall player in the nation, also. I think it’s going to be a big challenge for our secondary.
“We look to compete this week against A.J. Green.”
As to how the Vols plan to combat the sleek secondary slasher, Joseph said it will be with a combination of coverages and techniques.
“We’re going to try and put ourselves in good position to compete,” said Joseph, who came with Dooley from Louisiana Tech this winter. “Obviously, genetics has a lot to do with a guy that big. We’ve got some things in our scheme that we’ve got to account for him, and hopefully we can get a few guys around him and put some pressure on the quarterback and force it to be a tight throw.
“You don’t want to try and stuff him at the line and lose him at the line. We want to give ourselves chances to win late in the down, so we are going to mix up some things we do.”
UT’s Art Evans has good size for a cornerback at 6-foot, 185 pounds, but fellow corner starter Marsalis Teague is only 5-10 and 178 pounds. And Eric Gordon, who has been serving as the third corner and fifth defensive back on the field in nickel packages, is generously listed at 5-10, 186.
The Vols’ safety tandem — 6-0, 187-pound Janzen Jackson and 6-2, 181-pound Waggner — is about as light as they get in major college football.
Evans is the lone veteran from the Eric Berry-led secondaries that limited Green as well as any SEC team the past two seasons. Green’s career averages of 78.8 yards per game and 16.3 yards per catch dipped to 56.5 yards per game and 7.5 yards per catch against UT the past two years.
But now, an undersized nickel package of one junior, a third-year sophomore, two true sophomores and a redshirt freshman must tackle the task.
“I can’t make them older, and I can’t make them taller, and I can’t make them faster,” Dooley said.
Then what have Dooley, Joseph and graduate assistant and safeties coach Peter Sirmon been trying to teach their youngsters this week?
“Great technique, trying to help them when we can help them scheme-wise and great pattern recognition to get a jump on him,” Dooley said. “A lot of film study. Try to get an edge. That’s all you can do.”
Evans has emerged as UT’s best cover corner, but Joseph said Georgia won’t allow Evans to match up with Green every down.
“The way they move him around, you can’t really plan for him to be in one spot,” Joseph said. “So even if we did try to match a certain person on him, they can motion and shift him to different spots and really get us in an uncomfortable matchup somewhere else.
“We’re going to play our plan, and wherever he lands, we’re going to play him wherever he goes.”
Teague said he felt confident in the plan and the secondary’s ability to at least contain the future first-round NFL draft pick.
“For the most part, as long as we play within our defense and play within our technique, we’ll be all right,” Teague said. “He’s definitely one of the top players in the country. ... You can’t find anybody who would disagree with that statement. Great players are going to make great plays, so we’ve just got to go out there and try to prevent him from making as many as he normally does.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about us DBs versus A.J. Green; it’s about Tennessee versus Georgia. But obviously, slowing him down is a big key. Hopefully we can do that.”