KNOXVILLE – Tennessee players and coaches are talking about Mississippi State’s defensive backs, while the Bulldogs are focusing on the Vols’ quarterback and wide receivers.
It’s a sign of mutual admiration that both sides have put out this week, but underneath the flattery, there’s a fierce competition waiting to be had between two of the best individual units in the SEC on Saturday.
“I think it will be a great challenge for our guys,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “They’re the two best receivers we’ve played so far this year. And on top of that, the best passing quarterback we’ve played this year. So, that combination is definitely going to be a challenge for our secondary, and it should be fun. Those are the guys that you depend on as the strength … They are going to have to step up and play great.”
Mullen's comments were in reference to Tennessee starting quarterback Tyler Bray, the SEC's leading passer, and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson, who are third and 14th respectively in receiving yardage in the SEC this season.
The Bulldogs will counter with a secondary that is big, talented and experienced. It features three seniors and a junior, all of whom have NFL-type potential. Safeties Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley are solid, but it’s cornerbacks Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks who get most of the accolades and attention.
"They are both extremely talented, they are long,” coach Derek Dooley said. “These guys are NFL guys. They are legitimate, dang good football player. Their scheme helps them play a lot of zone so they can just prey on a quarterback breaking down and they make the play. There are not that many big-time corners out there who have the size, the athleticism and the instincts and these guys have it.”
Added Hunter: “They like to be real physical, get up in your face. They’re just like Florida. They’re always looks for a kill shot, a tackle and a jam, just roughing you around.”
The winner of this battle should its team an advantage in a game Mississippi State has been tabbed a three-point favorite in.
McCullers to see more time in the nickel: Nose tackle Daniel McCullers has been pegged as a run-stopping specialist since he signed with the Vols. It’s not a surprise that he does that best with his 6-foot-7, 360-pound frame, but coach Derek Dooley said they want to continue to work him into the nickel package, a defensive formation mainly used in passing situations.
“He brings a different kind of pass rush because he can push the pocket, which is just as effective sometimes,” Dooley said. “It's not like we have any sack masters up there. We're not taking any pass-rush specialists out of the game if we put him in."
McCullers’ junior college coach, Bert Williams, told Nooga.com that pass rushing is a hidden strength in an interview conducted just before McCullers signed with the Vols last February.
“He's a pass affecter at least because at 6-foot-7, he pushes three or four yards into the backfield and gets his hands up and you're not throwing anything over the middle,” Williams said. “He may not be getting a lot of sacks, but he's sure helping those other guys get sacks. He's more of an every-down guy than some people think.”
Practice observations: A few quick-hitting observations from the portion of Tuesday’s practice that was open to the media:
• Sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt was wearing a red, non-contact jersey and was a limited participant. He is dealing with lingering effects of a turf-toe injury he sustained early in the season.
• Freshman safety LaDarrell McNeil, senior linebacker Willie Bohannon and sophomore nickelback Jaron Toney all got a lot of work with the first-team defense. None are listed as starters on the team’s official depth chart, but all are potential starters against Mississippi State.
• Patterson, Hunter, Zach Rogers and Pig Howard were the only receivers getting work with the first team.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @Daniel_LewisCBS.