KNOXVILLE – There are plenty of things about Western Kentucky that might keep Tennessee coaches up at night this week.
There is the fact that the Hilltoppers knocked off Kentucky, an SEC team, by nine points last week while putting up nearly 500 yards of total offense against the Wildcats. WKU has multiple NFL-caliber players. The Vols, having faced a lower-tier FCS opponent in Austin Peay, really don’t know how good they are yet.
But perhaps the scariest part of Saturday is simply the Bobby Petrino effect. Knowing that one of the best offensive minds and play callers at any level in the nation is standing on the opposite sideline is enough to make even a veteran staff uneasy.
It can help a squad like WKU, which might not have the overall talent, speed and size as an SEC team, compete at a higher level.
“They have some really good schemes and concepts that they’re going to work within,” said Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek. “We’ve got to be sound all over the field – up front and in the back end.”
Petrino, a former head coach at Louisville, Arkansas and with the Atlanta Falcons, feasts on creating mismatches on defense and picking on any weak spots he can find. That puts an inordinate amount of stress on the linebackers.
Already charged with keying on WKU running back Antonio Andrews – an NFL prospect himself – the linebackers also must beware of Petrino getting them in single coverage against a back or an athletic tight end. Three of WKU’s top four receivers against Kentucky were either a running back or a tight end. Junior tight end Mitchell Henry led the Hilltoppers with six grabs for 65 yards and a touchdown.
“It’ll take a lot of eye discipline,” said linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. “We tell our guys just to match people up. [Petrino] always has athletic tight ends, he always has fast receivers, he always has good backs and probably the one characteristic he does better than anybody in the country is develop quarterbacks, and he has a good one [Brandon Doughty] at Western Kentucky.
“So for our guys, the challenge is to know the game plan and all the checks and make sure when we get out there we’re in great shape to play in 90-100 degree weather.”
It’ll be easier said than done, and Thigpen, a former divisional rival of Petrino when he was an assistant at Auburn and Petrino was the head coach at Arkansas knows that and respects the task UT faces this week.
“We’re playing one of the best minds in college football, so it’s going to be a tough challenge,” Thigpen added.
• Out: DE Jacques Smith, CB Michael Williams, DE Corey Vereen, TE Alex Ellis, TE Justin Meredith, CB Riyahd Jones, OL Jacob Gilliam, WR Ryan Jenkins
• Limited: WR Paul Harris, S Brian Randolph, RB Alden Hill
Jacques Smith (thumb) was not on the field during the open portion of practice. Coach Butch Jones said on Tuesday that he was scheduled to get the pins out of his broken thumb on Wednesday. He hasn’t been ruled out for Saturday, but if he doesn’t get any work in on Wednesday, that would mean he would play without practicing in pads since early August.
Wide receiver/return specialist Devrin Young had his hand/wrist area attended to at practice on Tuesday, but Jones didn’t give any update on him after practice that day. Young was not on the field Wednesday. There’s no official word from the team yet, but based on him not being at practice, he’s at the very least questionable for Saturday.
**UPDATE** Jones confirmed on his weekly call-in show Wednesday night that Young does have a broken hand and will miss 4-6 weeks.
• Defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, normally No. 98, was wearing a No. 63 jersey. It’s due to another one of Jones' motivational tools. He tells his players to play hard for six seconds – the average length of a play – and to make three great efforts on each play, hence the 63.
• With Young out of practice, Pig Howard, Jacob Carter and Johnathon Johnson were taking turns fielding punts. Tennessee’s depth chart (which isn’t always reliable) lists freshman corner Cam Sutton as the backup punt returner and Howard as the backup kick returner.
• The Vols began practice with some more 1-on-1 blocking drills. Freshman offensive lineman Brett Kendrick got the best of freshman defensive end Kendal Vickers. Alan Posey and Jason Carr had a rep that Jones called “absolutely gross.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga