Don’t fear Vols’ unknown if you’re West Virginia

MORGANTOWN — In the extended runup to a college football season opener, the media tends to open and re-open a bushel of storylines.

One that has become ripe for overanalysis? The “unknown” schemes being developed by Tennessee’s new football staff.

West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen fielded the question throughout the preseason though he never seemed particularly worried. (“You can’t prepare for everything,” he said.)

Play-caller Jake Spavital patiently chatted with reporters who acted as if Week 1 hinged upon finding the Vols’ game plan hidden in one of the brief cases on “Deal or No Deal.”

Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson strung together a hundred “we don’t knows” for the recurring topic of how Tennessee’s offense might emerge.

I understand why game film is comforting, and why tendencies give coaches a sense of having an opponent fenced in, yet no scheme trumps a linebacker like David Long darting through gaps at Tasmanian devil-speed. Or Will Grier going ballyard maverick outside the pocket.

Talent and toughness, hustle and hunger — those are the facets that ultimately will decide Saturday’s outcome.

Because scouting reports must begin somewhere, Gibson pointed his defensive analysts toward two Colorado State games in 2017, where current Tennessee offensive line coach Will Friend was serving as offensive coordinator. The only Colorado State opponents who came close to replicating WVU’s 3-3-5 stack defense were Nevada and Air Force.

Then again, Friend isn’t Tennessee’s coordinator —Tyson Helton is. So Gibson also went digging into last year’s USC footage. That wasn’t very helpful considering the Trojans faced no defense similar to WVU’s.

Ultimately, Gibson knows his defenders must pursue and tackle and simply be better than the orange guys in front of them. (All that footage of Baker Mayfield didn’t stop the blowout in Norman. Five years of tape on Glenn Spencer couldn’t prevent five turnovers against Oklahoma State.)

“We’re going to have to play our base stuff early to see how they’ll try to challenge us,” Gibson said.

On the other side, Tennessee has co-defensive coordinators in Kevin Sherrer (formerly of Georgia) and Chris Rumph (formerly of Florida), but there’s no disputing Pruitt will be calling the defenses — just as Holgorsen kept his hands firmly around WVU’s offense for six seasons. New coaches aren’t ones to let go of the reins until they know whom they can trust.

Might Pruitt’s cornerbacks play the aggressive style he used at Alabama, or the softer coverages from Georgia? Whatever the case, Grier and his pass-catchers will have seen it before. The concepts won’t appear extra-terrestrial.

There will be unknowns, for sure, but West Virginia is evolving, too, even though the coaches haven’t changed. (Good luck finding last year’s film of tight ends who stretch the field and can block in space.) Talk about chess all you want, these games boil down to what’s inside the chest.

And come Saturday, in collision after collision, the schemes and the moxie will find a balance.

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