Tide-Vols pairing could be decided by quarterback runs

Crimson Tide photos / Alabama redshirt sophomore quarterback Jalen Milroe reeled off a 77-yard run last season and has a 53-yard run this year.
Crimson Tide photos / Alabama redshirt sophomore quarterback Jalen Milroe reeled off a 77-yard run last season and has a 53-yard run this year.

In Tennessee's riveting 52-49 triumph over Alabama last season inside Neyland Stadium, quarterbacks Hendon Hooker and Bryce Young combined for 840 passing yards.

Saturday afternoon's rematch (3:30 on CBS) in Tuscaloosa could come down to which successor has the better wheels.

Volunteers quarterback Joe Milton III and Crimson Tide counterpart Jalen Milroe have shown they can throw over the top of defenses, but they may be even more dangerous as runners. Milroe had a 77-yard sprint in last season's win at Arkansas, while Milton covered 81 yards for a touchdown last month against the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The rushing elements of both quarterbacks have been on the minds of both coaches all week.

"You've got to have great gap integrity in normal downs, and we've got to do that in situational football, too, and in the red zone in particular," Vols coach Josh Heupel said. "It's not just designed runs for him. He has the ability to escape and make plays with his feet off of his dropbacks, and that is a huge factor in the game."

Milroe added a 53-yard run this season and has reached the end zone five times on the ground, which complements his No. 8 ranking nationally in passing efficiency. The redshirt sophomore from Katy, Texas, has completed 85 of 132 attempts (64.4%) for 1,397 yards with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions.

Milton ranks only 66th in efficiency, having completed 112 of 182 passes (61.5%) for 1,264 yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions, but the sixth-year senior from Pahokee, Florida, averages a healthy 5.4 yards per carry and has four rushing scores.

"I don't see Joe being a whole lot different from what we played against in the past when Hooker was there," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "The guy can throw the ball. He's accurate and has a strong arm. They take a lot of vertical shots, and he certainly has the capability of making those plays, but he's also athletic enough to extend plays in the pocket and run if necessary.

"You've got to keep the guy in front of you and have disciplined pass rush lanes. You've got to try and make the guy throw the ball on time from the pocket and hopefully cover them well enough to make it work on the back end."

What makes the rushing threat of each quarterback so profound is the size factor, with Milton 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, and Milroe not exactly diminutive at 6-2, 220. Emulating that size in practice apparently has not been the easiest thing to do.

"It's extremely difficult to finish the way these quarterbacks have a chance to finish it," Heupel said. "This guy's strength and speed and ability to change direction are extremely difficult to emulate. For us, defensively, we've got to settle into the football game extremely early on that side of it.

"The running quarterback is one of the hardest things to simulate during the course of your preparation. You're typically not tackling that guy, and as dynamic as he is, it is hard to have somebody who your defense is facing on a consistent basis throughout the course of a week."

Tennessee won last season's game despite Young throwing for 455 yards to 385 by Hooker. Whichever quarterback rushes for the most yards Saturday may not determine the winner, but it could be a very relevant factor.

"You do have to apply pressure," Heupel said. "You can't just sit there at the line of scrimmage, and they've got good skill out on the perimeter, too. We've got to push the pocket, but we can't let him escape it."

Tide's 'hump time'

Tennessee represents Alabama's eighth opponent in eight weeks, with the Crimson Tide getting their lone open date next weekend.

"Eight games in a row is a grind psychologically and physically for everybody," Saban said. "This is the hump time of the season. You've either got the mental toughness to be able to sustain it and get over the hump, or you don't.

"Hopefully we've got enough guys on our team who have enough mental toughness that they'll be able to do that for another week."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

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