Nov. 7, 2013
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The Vols return home for the first time in three weeks on Saturday, welcoming No. 7/10 Auburn to Neyland Stadium for Homecoming 2013 Presented by Lowe's.
Tennessee is 4-1 this season in Knoxville and 1-1 in SEC play. The Vols are 10-4 in their last 14 games at home and are coming off a 23-21 win over then-No. 11/9 South Carolina last time out at Neyland.
The Big Orange and Tigers kickoff at noon ET on ESPN.
The young Tennessee wide receiver corps took a step forward on Saturday against Missouri.
The group combined for a season best 26 catches for 240 yards, led by sophomore Pig Howard who had 11.
"I thought we did some things well last week," said wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni. "We made some plays; we had more catches and yards than we have had the whole season, which is positive. But we also left some plays out there. Some young guys left some plays out there that I wish we had back."
Like every passing week, the Vols have reviewed the film, learned from it, and snap and cleared.
With Marquez North developing on the outside, Howard has moved to the perfect spot for him, in the slot.
"The slot makes this offense go, it always has, it always will," said Azzanni. "When you have a big time guy playing X out there like Marquez, and then you have a slot like Pig, those two play off of each other. Everywhere we have been that has been the case. He makes it go, he controls the middle of the field."
The duo of North and Howard combined for 18 of the Vols' 26 catches on the night for 157 of the 240 yards through the air.
"It was great, I see so much improvement in both of those two kids," said Azzanni. "Marquez and Pig have come the farthest of that whole group in a short time and it is really neat to see the growth every week of those two guys. Do they make some mistakes, yeah. But I am also seeing a steady improvement which is positive."
"You keep the confidence high and that is the only way we are going to develop and get better."
Despite committing a season-high nine penalties last week, Tennessee remains tied atop the SEC in the category with just 36.6 penalty yards per game this season.
Four of the nine infractions against Mizzou came from the Vols' offensive line, and positional coach Don Mahoney won't let that repeat itself this Saturday against the No. 7/10 Auburn Tigers.
"It was disappointing; it is stuff that shouldn't happen," said Mahoney. "In what we talk about - in terms of the snap-and-clear mentality with what goes on in the previous play and carrying on to the next play - it is just being more focused, being more dialed-in. That stuff is something we can't allow to happen. It can't be in our game plan.
"Thus far this in practice it wasn't an issue. The focus has to be much higher and better, and the emotions of the game cannot affect us. That was a setback for us. We have to be more mentally dialed-in than we were."
The Vols' front five won't have to worry about any of the outside elements this week, as they return to Neyland Stadium for the first time since upsetting South Carolina three weeks ago.
"I think they are excited to get back out there," said Mahoney. "Anytime you are home, it takes away the elements of being on the road - all the different things with noises and issues that you work through.
"It isn't something they come out and say but you can tell by their body language. Also, with their disappointment of what took place last week and the week before that, we need to get this corrected and corrected in the right way."
With the insertion of freshman Joshua Dobbs, the offensive line has another element to account for - their quarterback's ability to takeoff with the ball.
"They know that the play can stay alive for a while," said Mahoney. "Even in our run game, he has the ability to possibly keep it. So yeah, it's definitely in their minds."
The list of dynamic quarterbacks faced this season grows longer on Saturday afternoon, as the Vols welcome Auburn's Nick Marshall to Neyland Stadium.
Averaging 65 yards per game on the ground, Marshall currently ranks ahead of last season's Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Oregon's Marcus Mariota - arguably the two most dynamic quarterbacks in all of college football.
Week in and week out, Auburn's game plan revolves entirely around the junior college transfer.
"They have a dynamic quarterback and a ton of confidence," said Vols' linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. "He's probably the most electric player I've seen. We've seen quite a few really good mobile quarterbacks, but I tell you, he's as good as any we've seen.
"The kids really believe in him - everybody on their team, everybody has a ton of confidence. Everybody is surrounding themselves and rallying behind him. Just like any team in football, if you have a dynamic quarterback, you're going to win a lot of football games."
On Wednesday's SEC coaches' teleconference, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn spoke about his first-year gunslinger.
"I think he's gotten more comfortable each week with our backs," said Malzahn. "With a quarterback you try and build around that quarterback's strengths and it took us a little bit to figure that out. [The zone read] is definitely a strength of his."
Malzahn went into further detail about Marshall's character.
"The thing that's really stood out to me is he is very hungry to learn," said Malzahn. "He's got a great attitude, very rarely makes the same mistake twice and he's a mentally and physically tough young man."