Kirby Smart and former Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt agree on priority to slowing Vols’ offense
JACKSONVILLE — The Georgia-Tennessee football game will be broken down 100 different ways before the marquee matchup kicks off next Saturday.
The undefeated Bulldogs (8-0) and Vols (8-0) are the nation’s top two offenses, and their longstanding border state rivalry only adds to the buildup for the 3:30 p.m. (TV: CBS) game at Sanford Stadium.
The over-arching storyline figures to be Tennessee’s high-flying, fast-break passing offense against Kirby Smart’s elite defense at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
But that’s only partly correct.
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Jeremy Pruitt, who recruited Hendon Hooker and record-breaking UT receiver Jalin Hyatt among several current Vols, said there’s a different priority.
“You look at what Tennessee does, No. 1 they run the football,” Pruitt said during his weekly appearance on the Ingles On the Beat Show.
“For them to have success, they need to be able to run the football and force you to have to put another guy in the box so they can get one-on-one matchups.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart echoed Pruitt, which isn’t surprising since they worked closely together for six years on Nick Saban’s Alabama football staff.
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“They run the ball really well, guys, I know you don’t believe me,” Smart said, asked late Saturday night if he was worried about Tennessee’s air attack.
“But they run the ball really well, which is why they throw the ball outside because everybody’s got people inside,” he said. “They have a perfect storm: they’ve got really fast, elite wideouts, a quarterback with a really strong arm.”
To Smart’s point, Tennessee ranks fifth in the SEC in rushing with 199.6 yards per game on the ground, just behind Georgia which averages 202.
The Vols lead the nation in total offense (553 yards per game) and scoring (49.4), while the Bulldogs are No. 2 in total offense (530.1) and sixth in scoring (41.8).
But it’s more than a numbers game; it’s all about matchups.
That’s why Pruitt’s second key to defending Tennessee is recognizing the personnel and adjusting accordingly.
“To have success against them you have to stop the run and then you look at them,” Pruitt said. “Is Cedric Tillman playing? If Cedric Tillman is not playing, Jalin Hyatt is the guy they try to get the ball to.
“Is there a way you can take him away and make somebody else beat you?”
Tillman did return from his ankle injury against Kentucky and made four catches for 22 yards while on a limited snap count.
Hyatt, meanwhile, had 5 catches for 138 yards and 2 touchdowns, needing only eight games to set the Vols’ single-season record for receiving TDs.
“Tennessee does a nice job of moving him around,” Pruitt said. “They use the motion game and he can be a one, a two or a three.”
Smart marveled once again on Saturday night at the Vols’ tempo and the challenges of preparing for the fastest-paced team in college football.
“I think every defensive coordinator across college football is trying to figure that out,” Smart said. “We’re all searching. There’s no way.
“Let’s be honest, you can two-huddle, three-huddle, shotgun huddle, go against air but they do it and they do it really well. It’s really hard to defend.”
Georgia and Tennessee have just one common opponent, Florida, and Hooker put on a show in a 38-33 win over the Gators.
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“You know, if they have a quarterback that couldn’t throw it, you’d say, ‘Well, they’re one-dimensional.’ “ Smart said. “But they have kind of a perfect storm going for his offense, and when he has that, it’s really, really, really hard to stop.
“They go at an elite pace, and they do a tremendous job.”