NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If Nebraska is to record its 10th win of the season with a victory over Tennessee, the Huskers are going to have to come up with a way to slow down one of the best scoring offenses in the SEC. Defending the Vols presents a laundry list of potential problems, and there’s one issue there the Huskers won’t be able to fix before Friday — size.
Tennessee’s top three receivers — Josh Malone (6-3), Jauan Jennings (6-3) and tight end Ethan Wolf (6-6) — are a big bunch. The trio combined for 1597 yards and 19 touchdowns this season, but that doesn’t mean Nebraska isn’t trying to come up with a solution.
“We’ve been using Miracle-Gro instead of Gatorade in between snacks and things like that,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said with a laugh. “It is what is.”
Cornerback Chris Jones said it wasn’t just the fact that Tennessee’s receivers are big — that’s something Nebraska sees often in the Big Ten — but there’s also that by now stereotypical SEC speed. For Jones at least, that’s part of what makes Friday’s Music City Bowl so enticing.
“For us it’s a challenge we’re ready to face,” Jones said. “We’ve just got to win our battles. That’s just going to build confidence for us and we’re looking forward to it.”
The problems the Vols’ offense presents don’t end there. There’s also running back, where junior Alvin Kamara and sophomore John Kelly have proven more than capable of filling in for Jalen Hurd after the former 4-star prospect and last year’s leading rusher opted to transfer seven games into the season.
Kamara, also a 4-star recruit, signed with Alabama out of high school and is said to be mulling the NFL Draft after this game. Before that, the Huskers’ defense will have to deal with him.
“I think [Kamara] is better than the guy that left,” Banker said. “He’s not as tall or anything, but he feels really strong in his upper body. You’re not going to tackle him up around the shoulders. We want to be down through that hip and through the legs. He puts a foot in the ground and he’s fast. He can get vertical on you.”
The Vols’ leading rusher, however, is senior quarterback Josh Dobbs. He has rushed for 713 yards and nine touchdowns and his arm isn’t lacking any either. Dobbs is completing 63.3 percent of his passes this year and has thrown 26 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. That included 11 touchdowns and just one interception in the final month of the season, when Dobbs had the second-highest passer rating in the country.
“He’s a very smart quarterback. Very, very smart,” Jones said. “He knows when to run, he knows where to put the ball. We just have to make sure we stay on our man and play the ball.”
Banker called Dobbs the “perfect quarterback” for Tennessee’s offense, which makes its calls at the line of scrimmage and doesn’t huddle. Against an offense like that, remaining assignment sound will be key for Nebraska.
“When you’re facing these read zone teams, it’s about responsibility, and then up front it’s about getting off a block and going and making a tackle,” Banker said. “They’re going to make you make plays in space in the bubble game, they’re a screen team so there’s deception, they’ve had flea flickers, all that. It’s do your job. It’s responsibility football.”
A few other notes from Tuesday’s practice at Vanderbilt University:
>>Banker said Friday isn’t about providing a springboard for the 2017 season, but things are a little different for seniors playing their last game for Nebraska.
“I think it’s huge, not only for us to end our season and the seniors’ last time here on a positive team, but to set this team up for next year,” linebacker Josh Banderas said. “This game is going to be huge for them going to next year.”
There’s also a little bit of conference pride on the line for Banderas.
“All you’ve heard for the past couple of years is SEC, SEC, SEC. Finally now the Big Ten is really starting to make that push,” he said. “To get a win just for the Big Ten as a conference and beat an SEC team that is talked about very highly would obviously be big.”
>>Senior wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp talked about his injury and recovery earlier in the day. You can read that story here.
>>What has made defensive line coach John Parrella so successful in his first year at Nebraska?
“One of the greatest things is his credibility to this program,” Banker said. “John Parrella was a walk-on. The infamous walk-ons at Nebraska. Then John Parrella was a captain. The walk-on legacy is true.”
According to Banker, that can resonate with kids who may be considering playing FCS football in places like the Dakotas or walking on at Nebraska. Doesn’t hurt that Parrella has been a Blackshirt, too.
>>The Music City Bowl is Mike Riley’s 10th bowl game. He’s won seven of his first nine and Banker says that success comes down Riley’s approach.
“It’s not just a game and it’s never been for the national championship obviously,” he said. “I think it’s just the methodology in how he goes about putting things together. It’s been good from a development standpoint for younger guys, guys that don’t play. And then you intermix getting ready for the game and it’s the whole attitude that this is a football game. We want to go out and win this game.”
>>Former Husker and current member of the Vanderbilt coaching staff Gerry Gdowski stopped by Nebraska’s practice Tuesday. Gdowski serves as the Commodores’ tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.