Facing a familiar foe

Tommy Thigpen

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Tommy Thigpen used the words "we" and "us" a lot Wednesday.

And he wasn't talking about Tennessee.

Rather its next opponent.

Thigpen spent four seasons on Auburn's staff, helping guide the Tigers to the 2010 BCS Championship.

The Vols' first-year linebackers coach faces his former team when Tennessee (4-5) hosts No. 7 Auburn (8-1) Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Thigpen will never forget his past with Auburn, nor is he trying to.

"Those memories," said Thigpen, swallowed in a bright orange hoodie with a "Power T" stitched across the chest. "You probably only get a national championship once in your lifetime, so that in itself is something to remember."

You'll have to forgive Thigpen for his brief stroll down memory lane. But don't let it fool you.

"I don't have any problems with it – no," Thigpen said when asked about coaching against his former players. "Win the ball game. That's the goal."

Tennessee secondary coach Willie Martinez coached at Auburn for one season in 2012, but was guarded when discussing his past with the Tigers.

While Thigpen didn't resist recalling some of his fondest Auburn memories, he knows the challenge the Vols face this weekend. Perhaps more so than anybody.

First-year Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was on staff with Thigpen for three years as the Tigers' offensive coordinator before departing for Arkansas State.

Thigpen is well versed in the complexities of a Malzahn offense. He remembers coaching against it everyday in practice not long ago.

"It wares you down," Thigpen said. "That's the whole deal, especially the defensive front. They snap the ball once every 10 or 15 seconds. Their tempo is as fast as any we've ever seen."

The prolific Auburn offensive attack is headed by junior quarterback Nick Marshall, who has run for 520 yards and thrown for 1,266 this season.

"(Auburn) has a dynamic quarterback," Thigpen said. "He's as good as any we've seen. He's fast. Kids really believe in him."

Marshall is the latest dual-threat quarterback who figures to challenge Thigpen's linebackers.

Thigpen feels his group is ready, although there hasn't been much evidence to suggest the Vols can stop a mobile passer.

Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk diced the Vols for a game-high 117 rushing yards just last Saturday and Connor Shaw scampered for 96 yards in Tennessee's last victory.

Thigpen is aware of the struggles against running quarterbacks, but he came to the defense of A.J. Johnson.

Johnson, the Vols' preseason first-team All-SEC linebacker, has been widely criticized by fans and media alike for a lack of lateral speed.

Thigpen doesn't want to hear it.

"A.J. makes tackles all over the field. He doesn't struggle in space. He makes tackles all over the field," Thigpen said. "I have A.J. down for one missed tackle in three games. But, we know Auburn is going to try and get to the sideline and we're going to have to contain."

But containing Marshall and not allowing Auburn to gain the edge doesn't ensure a win.

Thigpen knows that, too.

The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing and are ranked sixth nationally, tallying 306.2 yards per game.

"They want to run the ball," Thigpen said. "That's what they've had a lot of success with."

Tre Mason fronts Auburn's ground attack. Add him to a growing list of talented tailbacks the Vols have been tasked with slowing this season.

Mason ranks third in the conference in rushing, averaging more than 102 yards per game.

"They can score any way they want to," Thigpen joked.

Needless to say, Thigpen isn't surprised by the success Auburn is having after going 3-9 last season and failing to win an SEC game.

"They have great kids. They have a lot of young, talented players," Thigpen said. "They're playing a lot of good football and everyone is playing with a lot of confidence And –"

Thigpen paused, recollecting his thoughts on the Vols' next opponent.

"I mean, the personnel is there. It's a program with a lot of skilled players," Thigpen said. "We just got off track last year."

Tommy Thigpen, per university

John Jancek, per university

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