CHARLOTTE, N.C. —As Tennessee and No. 17 West Virginia prepare to kick off their seasons Saturday, a glimpse at the important matchups and storylines that could decide it:
Grier vs. The Hype
You can’t win a Heisman in Week 1 but you can lose it. Then again, Grier is only focused on winning the game, which is being played at a stadium where he watched Carolina Panthers games as a kid.
Expectations of a 4,000-yard season sound reasonable, as long as Grier can avoid the kind of injury he suffered diving for a pylon last November.
“I’ve been excited to get back out there ever since that play,” he said.
Coach Dana Holgorsen can’t stomach the thought of his franchise QB taking unnecessary risks, though the definition of “unnecessary” will vary from down to down. In other words, we haven’t seen the last of the Will Grier who hurdled a Virginia Tech defender in the fourth quarter.
“I’ll be situationally aware, but I still have the green light,” Grier said. “And I’m still going to do everything I can to win football games.”
WVU’s pass rush vs. Vols’ young offense
Tennessee is inexperienced up front and the Mountaineers’ defensive line beefed up with graduate transfers. Pairing ex-Clemson defensive end Jabril Robinson with Ezekiel Rose could give defensive coordinator Tony Gibson a nice 1-2 punch off the edge.
Joked outside linebacker David Long: “That probably takes some plays away from us, but that’s good for them.”
Rose is West Virginia’s returning sacks leader with 4.5, while Robinson looks like the real deal.
“He’s just relentless,” Long said. “He’s a go-getter after the quarterback and after the ball.”
Dylan Tonkery’s debut at Mike
Tonkery started every game as a redshirt freshman at outside linebacker — four at Will during David Long’s injury and the rest at Sam following Long’s return.
Tonkery didn’t need to play Mike with Al-Rasheed Benton manning the middle, but with Benton gone, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson felt Tonkery was a natural fit to slide inside with his understanding of the defense.
The transition, at least to his teammates, as been seamless.
“It doesn’t look like he even moved to a new position,” Long said. “He’s coming along and he’s making plays. He’s a hard worker. He’s still learning, just like most of us.”
Tonkery will try to plug holes in the interior of the Vols’ offensive line, breaking in new starters at all three positions. Center Brandon Kennedy, a transfer from Alabama, is making his Tennessee debut.
Dravon Askew-Henry slides in at Spur
He’s played in 39 games in a West Virginia uniform but Askew-Henry will make his first start at Spur against the Vols.
With the departure of Kyzir White, a gaping void was left in the Mountaineers’ secondary, and the emergence of Kenny Robinson at Free and Toyous Avery healthy at Bandit, Askew-Henry’s experience allowed him to move closer to the line of scrimmage.
With the Vols rotating four running backs and having an experienced receiving corps, Askew-Henry will have to pay attention to personnel in the backfield while possibly having to play man-coverage on an inside receiver.
“They have a whole new coaching staff; the first game is the unknown,” he said. “I feel like it’s going to be more about us doing our assignments and focusing on technique, and I feel like that’s how we’re going to win the game.”
WVU running backs vs. the football
There are four of them and only one ball, so fans are intrigued to see who gets priority touches.
Kennedy McKoy is the safe bet after two season as Justin Crawford’s backup, but coaches insist Martell Pettaway is more than a between-the-tackles bruiser.
How much the Mountaineers get from redshirt freshman Alec Sinkfield and four-star recruit Leddie Brown
“I don’t know what Sink and Leddie can do,” offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. “They’ve never been in a college atmosphere, and this is going to be a pretty wild game. You just have to ease some of these kids into it and see how they react.
“Throughout the course of the week, I think these kids have shown enough of what they’re capable of doing. You just have to rep them accordingly and make sure that they’re mentally ready for this game. Assignment-wise, they’re ready to roll.”
— Sean Manning contributed to this post.