KNOXVILLE - Doubts linger regarding Ole Miss senior quarterback Jeremiah Masoli's availability for Saturday's Southeastern Conference football game at Tennessee.
Houston Nutt told local media Thursday night that the dual-threat quarterback hadn't been cleared for contact since sustaining a concussion in last week's win over Louisiana-Lafayette, but the Rebels coach remained hopeful.
"I'm hoping [trainer Tim Mullins] can say he's going to be all right," Nutt told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "That's what I'm hoping."
Reportedly, Masoli has gradually improved throughout the week and practiced a little more every day. But he won't be cleared for contact until he passes a post-concussion examination, something he's failed to do despite two efforts per day all week.
"I think Masoli's the guy we're going to be defending. I'd be shocked [otherwise]," Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said Monday afternoon, and his stance hasn't publicly swayed since.
Multiple factors further complicate matters for UT this week.
Ole Miss's backup quarterback - 6-foot-5, 215-pound, pocket-passing sophomore Nathan Stanley - is nothing like the 5-11, 214-pound Masoli, who rushes for nearly 50 yards per game in addition to his 169-yard passing average.
Volunteers defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said the differences in Ole Miss's offense with Stanley and Masoli have been "pretty noticeable so far."
"They're more pro-style when Stanley's in there," Wilcox said. "When Masoli's in there, they're a lot more spreads, zone reads, fly sweeps, counters, quarterback runs, and that gives you a different set of issues. You've got to really have two different game plans for them."
Another issue is that the Rebels' offense - like many Nutt-run offenses in the past - is incredibly unpredictable and wildly multiple.
"You see that blueprint, there's no doubt about it," Wilcox said. "When you start breaking teams down, you're looking for formation or personnel or tendencies, and they don't have a lot of tendencies. They've got a lot things that they've done one or two or maybe three times, where other teams have done certain formations 70 times.
"It's a lot of variety, a whole lot of variety. ... They'll try just about anything from any formation."
Dooley, Wilcox and the defensive assistants have preached "don't cheat" all week on the practice field.
"A lot of teams, depending on their formation, the down and distance and their personnel, you have a pretty good feel for what they're going to do," Dooley said. "That doesn't mean you're going to stop it, but you can at least go out there with a plan. Here, these guys run a bunch of formations. There's no real continuity in their plays. So you have to play sound, good football across the board and good gap control.
"And then what makes it extra-hard is you've got a quarterback who can run. It's like anything. They outnumber you because of the quarterback. I think that's what's made it [tough], those two things. They're not running the same stuff. It's a new play here, a new play there and the ability to have a second runner in the backfield in a quarterback."
Senior defensive end Gerald Williams hopes the Vols' experience in their early-season loss to top-ranked Oregon - Masoli's old team - will help them Saturday.
"We played Oregon, and they do a lot of that same stuff," Williams said. "We also played South Carolina, and their quarterback is a mobile guy, too. It's always a plus to play a bunch of those running-type quarterbacks when you're about to see another one like that. It's the same thing this week. We've got to stay disciplined and handle our keys.
"Coach Wilcox has a great defensive scheme for us. It's just up to every guy out there to take care of his responsibilities."
Sophomore cornerback Prentiss Waggner said the Vols will play a lot of man-to-man coverage to simplify the situation and hopefully contain Masoli in the zone read running game.
"But one thing they are very effective at is [after you stop] the zone read, they have big-play receivers," said Waggner, who moved from safety last month. "They like to throw the long ball, and they have receivers that just go up and get it."
Wilcox said the Rebels' pass-catchers mirror their offense's versatility. They don't have a 50-yards-per-game receiver, but five Rebels average at least 21.7 yards, and four average at least 29.4. Seven have caught at least one touchdown pass.
"It starts with their running game, and that's more complicated because you've got to stop the quarterback there, too," Wilcox said. "But the pass game, they've got guys that can beat you in a hurry. They can get you with fly sweeps and screens, but they'll also just launch it down the field, and they've got big guys on the outside.
"They've got a nice complement of guys all over that offense. That's why they can do so many things."