If the age-old quandary of logic concerning what will happen when an irresistible force (UT's wideout duo of Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter) clashes with an immovable object (the Pack's David Amerson-led secondary) is answered definitively during the Chic-Fil-A Kickoff Classic, whichever unit comes out ahead should determine which team wins the larger battle.
If Rogers gets his typical 80-100 yard game to jumpstart his quest for another 1,000-yard season, and Hunter proves his fluky pre-injury numbers (22.1 yards per catch and a TD every 3.6 touches in his career so far) cannot be explained away by small sample size, the Pack are in trouble. But, if the experienced, opportunistic Pack secondary (State led the nation with 27 picks last year) can either lockdown the duo or get their mitts on a few of Tyler Bray's balls, then the force will come to rest at the object's feet.
Akula has already offered an excellent preview of the Vols' scary-good tandem; now, a look at the 4 (or more) dudes that will try to corral them.
Any discussion of the Pack secondary starts will the record-setting David Amerson (6-3, 194 JR), who set the ACC mark for picks a year ago with 13, a pair of which he took back for a quick 6. Amerson won the Jack Tatum award as the nation's top DB last year, and he finds himself on the watch list for the Thorpe (also given to the nation's top DB-he was one of 3 finalists for it last year), Nagurski, Bednarik, and Nobel Peace Prize awards this season. The Nagurski and Bednarik awards are pretty much the Heisman for defenders, and if Amerson comes anywhere close to matching last year's antics he has a good shot at claiming said hardware.
It is difficult to quantify just how good Amerson was last year at the field corner spot, but the stats definitely tell part of the impressive tale. His 13 interceptions were not only a league record, they are the second most ever in the history of the FBS. Amerson was one pick shy of matching Al Worley, who snagged 14 opponent passes for Washington in 1968. His 13 INTs shattered the school record of 8 that had stood for over 60 years. He is a sure tackler who is not afraid to help in run support, as his 59 stops indicate. And he racked up so much INT return yardage that he actually ranked 8th on the team in all-purpose yards. Amerson, like everyone in the Pack secondary save for perhaps Earl Wolff, has receiver-grade hands. Last year the Pack picked 27 balls and broke up 35 passes, compared to 12 INTs and 54 break ups by their opponents. Bottom line: when Amerson and his mates get their hands near it it's not batted down, it's an INT. Dude's a stud, and barring injury (deargodpleaseno!), he's a lock for the 1st round of the NFL draft.
At 6-3, Amerson has the size to lock up UT's rangy wideouts, so the matchup of irresistible force vs. immovable object could come down to whoever Amerson is not covering vs. C.J. Wilson (5-11, 187 RS GR), who we (and UT) might pick on as the weak link in State's secondary, though calling Wilson the weak link is probably more of a compliment to the rest of the defensive backfield than it is a knock on his abilities. No current Pack player has appeared in more games (38) than the intelligent boundary corner; Wilson graduated in 3.5 years and is working on his master's degree. But Wilson backslid a bit as a junior, dropping from 43 tackles as a sophomore to 33. He broke up 8 passes as a sophomore, but just one last year, and he also picked off just one pass after grabbing a pair the year before. When he does snag one, look out. All 3 of Wilson's career picks have been returned for scores. Jarvis Byrd (5-11, 186 RS JR), who emerged as a starter as a true freshman and looked to have the makings of a shutdown corner before losing two years to separate ACL injuries, could push Wilson for playing time if he returns 100%.
Other reserves include redshirt freshpeople Tyrell Burriss (5-11, 177) and Juston Burris (6-1, 193). Tyrell, a 3-sport star from Florida with 4.4 speed, is an intriguing prospect, and Juston, a Raleigh kid, has nice size for the position and stood out as a returner, receiver, and corner in high school, but Pack fans are probably hoping they will get their ears wet in garbage time later in the year. The Burriss/Burris non-brothers are not likely ready for primetime against receivers the caliber of Rogers and Hunter.
At the safety spots, Wolff (6-0, 201 RS GR) and Brandon Bishop (6-2, 210 SR) strike me as lunchpail guys who do not worry much about headlines, but if it weren't for Amerson's domination of the limelight these two guys would get a heckuva lot more press, and deservedly so. Both guys are sure tacklers and turnover-inducing machines. Wolff, like Wilson, has appeared in a team-high 38 games and graduated in just 3.5 years. He is the Pack's leading returning tackler from last year (105) and for his career (255). Though he drops the occasional INT opportunity, he made 3 picks a year ago. He's at his best when separating his man from the football; Wolff forced 3 fumbles last year and his 7 career forced fumbles ranks 5th all-time in the Pack annals. His athleticism allows him to play a Polamalu-style of run support (which will really help our green LB group) while still getting deep enough drops to defend the pass. He is all over the field, and he will hit you. The guy's MOM is active-duty military for chrissakes!
Bishop, the more sure-handed and cerebral of the senior safeties, picked 5 balls last year and has 9 in a career that includes 33 starts. He was 3rd on the team with 89 tackles last year, and, with a scoop and score against Georgia Tech, he was one of 4 defenders to score for the Pack in 2011.
BTP would be remiss not to also mention Dontae Johnson (6-3, 190 JR), the team's nickel back a year ago, who will see extensive time on the field and gives the Pack an experienced playmaker should injury strike in the secondary. State started in a 4-2-5 look twice last year, with Johnson getting the nod as the 5th defensive back, and he appeared in all 13 games. The thin group at LB makes it very likely that we'll see that 4-2-5 look a lot more this year. Getting the productive Johnson on the field is a good thing; he recorded 3 sacks and 4 pass break ups last year, high totals for a guy that doesn't spend every down on the field.
Unfortunately, the transfers of Donald Coleman and Dean Haynes hurts the depth in the secondary and on special teams, but 3-star recruits Hakim Jones (6-2, 190 RS FR), who has a year of scout-team work under his belt, and Josh Sessoms (6-3, 185), a true freshman who picked State over Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, have the talent to make an impact when their time comes.
Ultimately, despite the "me" in team, football is a team game. No secondary can stay with any group of receivers forever, especially not a pair with the talent of Rogers and Hunter. If Bray has forever to throw, uh oh. But bringing pressure is State's strong suit (9th in the FBS in sacks last year and 4th the year before), so as long as the guys up front are harassing Bray you can expect Rogers and Hunter to be somewhat neutralized. State's backline is even good enough to help the rush get a drive-stalling coverage sack or two. But all of its blitz gambling and route jumping aggressiveness has a price: State gave up 29 plays of 30 or more yards last year; only 24 teams yielded more. If Tennessee does hit a home run or two, can the Pack recover?