Players to watch: Tennessee

Players to watch: Tennessee

Alabama 

DL Raekwon Davis

With defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand having missed the last two games due to an MCL sprain, Davis has risen to the occasion. He leads the team in sacks with 4.5 and is second in tackles for loss with five. He had 13 tackles in the four games before Hand’s injury, but has matched that output in the two games since. Tennessee is one of two teams in the SEC that does not have a receiver in the top 20 in receiving yards, and the Volunteers’ recent switch to a more mobile quarterback likely means their offense will be even more run-oriented than normal. The Crimson Tide defense allows the fewest rushing yards per game in the FBS – just under 67 yards – and also ranks second in touchdowns allowed (2) and yards allowed per attempt (2.3). Davis’ contributions to stopping the run will go a long way toward stifling a Tennessee offense that, by game time, will have gone 28 days without a touchdown. 

LB Rashaan Evans

Last week’s game against Arkansas was one of the best of Evans’ career. The senior linebacker made 3.5 tackles for loss (two of which were sacks), which beat and tied his previous career highs. He also made six tackles, the fourth-most of his career, and forced a fumble for the second time in his four years at Alabama. The coaching staff named him one of three defensive players of the week. Evans’ four total tackles for loss is good for fourth on the team, and he trails only Raekwon Davis (4.5) and Shaun Dion Hamilton (2.5) in sacks. If Tennessee’s offensive line can open holes for John Kelly (who forces as many missed tackles as anyone in the country) to run through, Evans’ tackling vs. Kelly’s elusiveness will be a key matchup to watch. The Volunteers also made a recent quarterback change, benching junior Quinten Dormady for the more mobile Jarrett Guarantano. Evans may be needed to set the edge and prevent Guarantano from getting downfield.

RB Bo Scarbrough

The Volunteers’ run defense ranks in the bottom third of the FBS in yards per attempt, yards per game and touchdowns allowed, so we could see Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll dial up even more running plays than usual on Saturday. Despite Damien Harris having the third-highest yards per attempt of all FBS running backs, Scarbrough has actually had more carries, with 72 to Harris’ 68. Scarbrough has also become more involved in the passing game this year, catching 11 passes through seven games compared to only four for all of last season. He is generally considered to be the type of running back who improves as games go on, so perhaps the Crimson Tide’s depth at running back has hurt his production, with the starters often leaving the game early. Expect both Scarbrough and Harris to have big days against a Tennessee defense that has allowed 194 and 294 rushing yards in its last two games.

ST Daniel Wright

Who? Few fans have probably heard of Wright, but he has had a big impact on the Crimson Tide’s success this season. The No. 60 overall recruit and fifth-best safety in the 2017 recruiting class according to ESPN’s rankings, Wright has played exclusively on special teams so far in his freshman year. That No. 3 jersey that you see sprinting down the field on kickoffs? That’s Wright, who leads the team with ten tackles on kickoff coverage this year and has made at least one tackle on a kickoff in six of seven games. He has been named a special teams player of the week by the Alabama coaching staff three times this season, tied for the most on the team. With Tennessee (who ranks No. 6 in the FBS with over 27 yards per kickoff return) coming to town, keep an eye out for the other crimson No. 3 jersey streaking down the field on Saturday.

WR Henry Ruggs III

Despite muffing two punts last week against Arkansas, head coach Nick Saban said after the game that he expects Ruggs to develop into a quality returner and receiver, listing explosiveness, reliable hands and a team-first attitude as his best attributes. So far this season, he has split punt return duties with Trevon Diggs, returning eight punts to Diggs’ 10, and is responsible for six of Alabama’s eight kickoff returns. Some may be surprised to learn that Ruggs also leads the team in receiving touchdowns with four, including one in each of the last three games. It is even more noteworthy that those are his only four receptions this year. The freshman was ranked the No. 1 wide receiver recruit in the 2017 class by 247Sports (his fellow Alabama freshmen Devonta Smith and Jerry Jeudy came in third and fifth). Here’s another piece of trivia that doesn’t mean much now but likely will in a year or two: Ruggs caught Tua Tagovailoa’s first career touchdown pass.

 

Tennessee 

QB Jarrett Guarantano

If you are a Tennessee fan, sure, there was a lot to gripe about last week after the Volunteers failed to score a touchdown against South Carolina. But for the optimistic Tennessee fans, you have a signal caller to look forward to in Guarantano. The redshirt freshman out of New Jersey showed promise and a whole lot of heart in his first career start against the Gamecocks. Even though Guarantano failed to lead the offense into the end zone, there is no reason to overlook the athleticism and skill he possesses. Coming out of high school, Guarantano was the fourth-rated dual threat quarterback in both ESPN’s and 24/7 Sports’ recruiting rankings, and has so far taken care of the football in four games this season. Of course, no type of experience can prepare a quarterback and offense for Alabama, which might work in the Vols' favor as the Crimson Tide defense does not have a lot of film on the guy. That may be Tennessee’s only chance it has Saturday afternoon.

RB John Kelly

For the majority of this chaotic season the Volunteers have endured, Kelly has proven to be one of the lone bright spots. Kelly split time with current New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara last season and still led this Tennessee team in rushing. So far in 2017, we have seen no kind of drop off. Kelly’s 552 rushing yards leads the Volunteers and ranks fifth in the SEC. The junior tailback has a very physical run style, just ask South Carolina’s Jamyest Williams, who was sent to the turf via a vicious stiff arm from Kelly last week. Even though you could argue that Kelly has been bottled up in the last few weeks in the run game, he poses a similar threat catching passes out of the backfield. He leads the Volunteers with 24 receptions, and ranks second on the team in receiving yards with 250. 

LB Colton Jumper

When you think of playmakers on a Tennessee team, you think of the Derek Barnett’s and other 4 and 5-star recruits that made their way into Knoxville. You do not think of Colton Jumper, the senior from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee who was a 2-star recruit out of high school, and now leads Tennessee on defense. Jumper has made a name for himself at Tennessee, as he currently leads the team with five sacks, seven tackles for loss and is fourth on the team in tackles. In the season opening win against Georgia Tech, Jumper racked up a team high 18 tackles and has refused to slow down. 

DB Nigel Warrior

You do not have to look much further after reading his name to know that Nigel Warrior, is in fact, a football player. And a good one. His name says it all, Warrior is a warrior. After playing sparingly during his freshman campaign last season, Warrior started the season opener against Georgia Tech and has made a big impact on this Tennessee defense. Warrior currently ranks second on the team with 45 tackles and has forced two fumbles–both in SEC play. Last weekend, Warrior blanketed the big Gamecock tight end Hayden Hurst, who was the team’s second leading receiver. The strong safety can come up and help in the run game, but also provides protection in the Volunteer secondary. 

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