As injuries continually decimated Tennessee a season ago, simply slowing any opponents down became a chore, especially when it came to stopping the run.
It got horrific down the stretch with Kentucky churning out 443 yards on the ground, followed up the next week by Missouri gaining 430. Unbelievably, those were games the Vols wound up winning. Though Vanderbilt finished with 192 rushing yards in the season-ending loss, the defense was atrocious overall once again.
The season-ending debacle may seem like an anomaly due to the injuries, but it was poor all year for Tennessee attempting to stop the run. Remember Texas A&M chewing up the Vols for 353 rushing yards, followed by Alabama adding 409 the week after? It was brutality at its finest in 2016 as first-year coordinator Bob Shoop found it impossible to plug-and-go once the bumps, bruises and — in senior defensive tackle Danny O’Brien’s case — losses mounted.
I’ve said all that to say this: If you want to worry about one thing for the season, the biggest question mark remains Tennessee’s ability to generate a pass rush. But if you want to worry about one thing against the Yellow Jackets, you need to fear just what GT is going to do to UT’s defense on the ground.
Unless there’s a complete turnaround from a season ago, it could turn into another shootout, and with so many new faces on offense, that’s not something I’m sure the Vols want to endure in the season-opening showdown on Labor Day night.
You can forget about rushing the passer against the Bees, because, there’s really no such thing as a “passer” in a Paul Johnson-led offense. The quarterback is the point guard and pitch man in a run option. There’s nothing more vital for defending this offense than discipline and containment, and that’s why we should all be concerned.
After missing plenty of action last year with a high ankle sprain that kept him hobbled for the last part of the season even after he returned, junior middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. had returned to form this summer, looking like the budding star he was as a true freshman in 2015. Then, he got hurt and likely won’t play against Georgia Tech.
While the Vols have plenty of talent at linebacker, nobody has proved he can get players lined up and still perform at the high level Kirkland did. Most likely, Colton Jumper will be inserted at middle linebacker to take Kirkland’s place, and while Jumper is an admirable fill-in against most defenses, his lack of SEC-level speed isn’t such a good fit in defending the complex run fits against Tech. Cortez McDowell isn’t anywhere near the best athlete in UT’s linebacking corps, and he could be a liability in this particular game, too, even though he should be an asset much of the year.
Want to insert your most talented ‘backers? That’s an understandable desire, but none of Daniel Bituli, Quart’e Sapp or true freshman Will Ignont have played very many meaningful defensive snaps. Throwing them to the wolves in a game like this likely will wind up showing up in the statistics.
The bottom line is this: Tennessee hasn’t consistently recruited as well on the second level of the defense as it has at other positions, and it’s an ideal time for the player development that was lacking a season ago to shine through. This is going to be an all-hands-on-deck game where the Vols must throw out seasoned-yet-unspectacular veterans along with unproven, more talented youngsters. How Shoop and Tommy Thigpen have coached them up will go a long way in determining whether the Vols win this game.
I’m not suggesting the Vols are in trouble. There’s just a lot of unproven players who must step up to slow down a rushing attack that may not have elite players but is still really difficult to defend. Thankfully for UT, it has had months to game-plan rather than days.
I’d be remiss not to mention the Vols held Nebraska to just 61 rushing yards in the Music City Bowl last year when Shoop had time to dial up a perfect game plan. This type of GT scheme, of course, is different, but a big game in the opener could set the tone for a turnaround season on that side of the ball. The Vols are certainly capable from a talent perspective, but they’ve got to do worlds better than a season ago to thwart the attack.
What about the dive?
Beyond the (potential) linebacker problem is another, perhaps even more worrisome, situation. Honestly, it’s an extension of Tennessee’s pass-rushing worries that may materialize across the season, and it centers around a lack of experience on the defensive ends.
In case you forgot, Derek Barnett is gone. So, too, are Corey Vereen and LaTroy Lewis, who are both on NFL rosters.
That leaves Jonathan Kongbo, Darrell Taylor, Kyle Phillips and true freshman Deandre Johnson as the quartet of defensive ends that will get the bulk of the rotation on Monday night. For the future, the concern there is that, even though there’s plenty of athleticism, will there be an aggressive pass rush?
The concern against the Yellow Jackets isn’t aggression but discipline. None of those guys have that much experience playing the position, so how well will they be able to contain? How well will they be able to fit runs, and, when they don’t, what’s going to be behind them?
The ball isn’t always going to the outside, either. It’s unclear whether or not Shy Tuttle is going to play in this game, and while UT is pretty excited about the way its defensive tackles, led by Kahlil McKenzie, Kendal Vickers, Alexis Johnson, freshman Matthew Butler and others have played this summer, a large portion of the rushing yards allowed by UT a season ago were between the tackles.
Granted, that was a defense that didn’t have McKenzie and Tuttle for a large chunk of the season, but the point remains that this team must be vastly improved against the run up front. They’ve got to get off blocks, plug holes and move plays an extra foot or two in the other direction, allowing pursuit to crush plays before they get to the second level.
You get in trouble trying to defend this type of offense once you get 3 or 4 yards downfield, and UT must get off blocks, blow up plays and finish tackles.
If the Vols don’t, it’s going to be a long night and a rough start.
Help from the back
If you think this is all painting a pretty dour picture thus far, that isn’t my intent. It’s very possible that, in the second year of the Shoop scheme and with real health, talent and depth, this UT team will be better-suited to battle the run than last year’s team.
But the questions abound, especially in this game.
To be honest, I’m more concerned about this game than any other outside of Alabama, Georgia or LSU this season. I think it’s that much of a matchup issue for a young UT team searching for playmakers and still smarting from the defensive disappointments from a season ago.
A major X-factor for the Vols in combating this Tech scheme is putting five good-tackling defensive backs on the field, and that’s what UT will likely do a lot with its linebacker concerns.
I could see a scenario where Rashaan Gaulden plays a cornerback position and Micah Abernathy, Nigel Warrior and Todd Kelly Jr. all three are on the field alongside Justin Martin, and, at times, Emmanuel Moseley. If you can creep TKJr. up in the box (really, he’s more an asset playing nearer to the line than he is in coverage at this point of his career, anyway) it may give you your fastest, most aggressive, best-tackling defense.
I mean, had you rather an inexperienced linebacker be on the field or Nigel Warrior/Micah Abernathy? That’s the type of trade-off we’re looking at. Had you rather a guy like the skinny Moseley be on the field or a tackling machine like Gaulden at defensive back, where you can slide Abernathy into the nickel role and not lose much coverage concerns because there’s no real threat of Tech flinging it all over the field against you, anyway?
Shoop needs to get creative in this game, and you know he will. How the Vols respond will go a long way in determining how well they play in this game.
There are plenty of concerns for UT’s defense in this type of game. The Yellow Jackets cut-block you on every play, bruising knees and just genuinely making it an uncomfortable situation. Misdirection, quarterback reads and deception are the names of this game, and UT has to prove it can be disciplined enough to stop the different things GT will throw in their direction.
It may just mean the difference in 1-0 and 0-1.