Ball State admittedly ‘nervous’ about facing Vols

KNOXVILLE, TN - September 02, 2021 - Running back Jabari Small #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Bowling Green Falcons and the Tennessee Volunteers at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee showed no pity whatsoever last football season against teams from outside Power Five conferences.

The Volunteers humiliated Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech and South Alabama by the average score of 51-7, taking a 14-0 lead into the second quarter in each of those contests. Josh Heupel's up-tempo offense helped produce a 190-51 advantage in the first quarter for Tennessee in all games last year, and it has Ball State coach Mike Neu understandably uneasy entering Thursday night's trip to Neyland Stadium (7 on SEC Network) in the season opener for both teams.

"Certainly it challenges your discipline," Neu said Monday. "When you play a team that fast, it all starts with getting lined up and getting the call communicated if they come out in different formations or different looks offensively. The discipline piece is huge -- just making sure we're sound in our assignments -- and we have to be mentally tough.

"There is going to be a time in the game when guys are gassed a little bit, but you've got to be able to dig deep."

Neu said his Cardinals spent numerous hours on Tennessee's tempo during spring practice and again this preseason. They also devoted plenty of time on open-field tackling in preparation for Vols sixth-year senior quarterback Hendon Hooker, who not only threw for 2,945 yards with 31 touchdowns and three interceptions last season but rushed for 616 yards and five scores.

Ball State posted a 7-1 record and a No. 23 ranking in the Associated Press poll, the program's first season-ending ranking ever, during the COVID-shortened 2020 season. The Cardinals capped that year by winning the Mid-American Conference and throttling San Jose State 34-13 in the Arizona Bowl, but they slipped back to a 6-6 regular season a year ago before getting thumped in the Camelia Bowl 51-20 by Georgia State.

Georgia State provided the worst opening loss in Tennessee history with its 38-30 downing of Jeremy Pruitt's Vols in 2019, and Heupel said Monday that every start to a season is loaded with unknowns.

"With week one in general, you're never sure what you're going to get," Heupel said. "Some of that can be personnel-based. You've got guys who graduate and new guys who come in, and where are they going to place them? Schematically, things tend to change after everybody goes through a self-scout process from the previous year.

"I think it's really big in week one that your guys have an understanding of what you anticipate to see and that they have the tools in their tool bag to adjust to what they're actually seeing."

While Hooker is coming off the most efficient season in Vols history and has played in 38 career contests between his time at Virginia Tech and in Knoxville, his counterpart isn't nearly as tested. Ball State redshirt junior starter John Paddock has seen action in two games the past two years, getting in the second half last September of lopsided losses at Penn State (44-13) and Wyoming (45-12).

"I think guys are excited, and I think guys are nervous, which personally I think is a good thing," Paddock said. "I think it's good to be nervous at times. You want to be ready and you want to have butterflies, because it means that you care about what's going on and what's ahead of you.

"It doesn't mean you need to be anxious. I've had to pull a couple guys aside and say, 'Hey, we've got loads of confidence in you. We're going to get it done this week.' I think everyone is really excited."

Depth chart revealed

Tennessee's depth chart for Thursday's opener was released Monday and did not lack for the word "or," as multiple starting spots remain undecided.

Among those still vying for starting positions are Gerald Mincey and JJ Crawford at left tackle, Bru McCoy and Walker Merrill at the outside receiver position opposite Cedric Tillman, and Christian Charles and Kamal Hadden at the cornerback spot opposite Warren Burrell. Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren have been considered co-starters at tight end for a while now, but Monday's depth chart did reveal Tamarion McDonald over Georgia Tech transfer Wesley Walker at the "star" position.

When asked about left tackle, Heupel stuck to his preseason script.

"Both of those guys are going to play," he said. "Somebody will run out with the ones, and we'll have a plan to rotate those guys throughout the course of the game."

Heupel admitted to liking the competition at star, adding, "T-Mac has been as consistent as anybody we've had since we hit the grass day one of training camp."

Moment with McCoy

McCoy, the former five-star Southern California signee, had his NCAA transfer waiver cleared last Friday, so Monday marked the first opportunity for Heupel to address the subject.

"It was certainly a small sense of relief, but more than anything it was excitement," Heupel said. "When I got the news, it sent chills down my spine. I'm so excited for him. He's a young man who's done it the right way since he's been here, and he's gone through a long, winding journey to get to this point.

"Now he has an opportunity to move forward with his future and go compete with his teammates, and having the chance to tell him and then hear him tell his dad was one of the great moments in my career."

Coaching Kelly

Neu spent three seasons with the Nashville Kats of the Arena League from 1997-99, going from a teammate to the position coach to the offensive coordinator with former Vols quarterback and Rhea County legend Andy Kelly.

"I really just road Andy's coattails, if you want to know the truth," Neu said with a smile. "Andy Kelly was everything in Tennessee, and it was awesome to be teammates with him and roommates with him. In my first year as a coach, which happened to be in 1998, I was the quarterbacks coach calling plays for a guy who is older than me.

"Back then in the Arena League, the play-calling consisted of the quarterback coming over to the offensive coordinator, who was on the field. I would ask him what he wanted to run. He would tell me, and I was like, 'Yep, that's what I want to run, too. That sounds great.' I still communicate with Andy, and I know he's going to be at the game."

Odds and ends

Tennessee is 3-0 in Thursday night openers, defeating Louisville 28-11 in 1991, Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime in 2016, and Bowling Green 38-6 last year. ... The last Thursday game for the Vols was last December's Music City Bowl loss to Purdue. ... Heupel did not have an update Monday on William Mohan, the redshirt sophomore linebacker who was suspended indefinitely following his Aug. 21 arrest in South Knoxville on a domestic aggravated assault charge.

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