Sept. 21, 2011
KNOXVILLE - In 208 of the 217 plays the Tennessee defense has been on the field, its opponents have averaged just 3.3 yards, according to head coach Derek Dooley. It's the other nine plays averaging 46.4 yards that have been devastating to the Vols.
"You can't get them back," Dooley said. "That's part of it, but we're doing some good things. We're giving up these enormous plays that are killing us. It's either been a guy just beating us one-on-one, a missed assignment and nobody able to correct it or just not good tackling once the ball breaks in the perimeter game."
Sometimes it's a combination that leads to the big play.
"Usually what happens is it's a bust by at least one person and usually accompanied by a missed tackle," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "When you have a bust and a missed tackle on one play, it's bad news. You're going to have a bad play. It just can't be a catastrophic play. It has to be, `Hey, we had a bad play. Let's line up. It's first-and-10. Let's play again.'"
The study has been preached to the UT defense throughout the open week.
"It's a good message," Dooley said. "You can't take those nine plays out. Other teams are going to hit one or two, but that's a big discrepancy. We have to make sure number one, we try not to have those pre-snap mental errors to give us a chance, but more importantly that we're all rallying to the ball as fast as we can and playing with a little more instinct our there when the ball breaks and getting guys on the ground."
The important thing is being able to put the big plays in the past.
"There's no do-overs," Wilcox said. "You don't get them back. They have to understand that. You don't know when that play is coming during the game; the first play, 17th, 52nd, 88th. When is that play going to happen? That's what we have to be able to manage."
DEFINING THE STANDARD
After a disappointing start to the bye week, the Vols recovered with a `pretty good, spirited' practice Wednesday morning at Haslam Field.
"I think a lot of it had to do with us being a young team and not really understanding the expectations of an open week," Dooley said. "That starts with our coaches and me communicating, doing a better job of communicating what the purpose of the open week is and what our expectations are."
Meeting the expectations at Tennessee starts with each individual looking in the mirror.
"What I talked to them about is defining a standard of who you are as a man, who you are as a competitor and challenging yourself every day to meet that standard, not succumbing to the desires of the world or how you feel to where you might compromise that standard," Dooley said. "Hopefully, we learned a little bit and had a good day of work today. We'll see where we go from there."
Dooley wants his team to understand that just because there isn't a game Saturday, that doesn't mean the Vols are off all week.
"You have to be a very mature, professional football player to come and take advantage of an open week because they view it as you're off," he said. "But we're not off. We have work to do, work to develop." The Vols will use the open date to tweak their own craft and try to improve, rather than implement the game plan for their next opponent, Buffalo.
"We're not doing any game planning," Dooley said. "We're doing a lot of work on our future opponents as coaches, not as much for the team. We're really focused more on just getting better, improving fundamentally in what we do in our blocking attack when we're running and improving in our understanding of our schemes going against each other. Both sides do a lot. We just go against each other and play football."
UT OFFENSE NOT PLANNING ON SLOWING DOWN
Nobody is more aware of the impact sophomore wide receiver Justin Hunter had on the success of the Tennessee offense than offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, but he certainly isn't going to use Hunter's season-ending injury as an excuse moving forward.
"Justin (Hunter) is a heck of a good football player, there is no question about that, but injuries in football are a part of life," Chaney said. "We'll move right on and we'll continue to push the ball down the field because that's who we are."
For now, Chaney's attention has been focused elsewhere anyway as he continues to devise a plan to get more production out of the running game.
"Ultimately, the biggest change we have to make is we have to run the football better with or without Justin Hunter," Chaney said. "(His injury) won't matter one bit. He's a heck of a good football player and don't misunderstand me, he will be sorely missed, but at the end of the day, until we run the football better and attack the line of scrimmage better we are going to struggle. That's ultimately the point of emphasis."
While Hunter's injury is definitely a hit, one positive is that it will create an opportunity for any one of Tennessee's young receivers - Matt Milton, DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas to name a few - to step up and play a bigger role in the UT offense. Chaney isn't quite ready to anoint any one of them just yet though.
"I think they are all capable of that on any given down," Chaney said. "It's a matchup thing against the secondary on who those individuals are, so to determine who that will be is a little premature. That's a game plan deal."
Another option would be to spread the production around to other positions, including tight end where the Vols have a trio of pass-catching options in junior Mychal Rivera and freshmen Brendan Downs and Cameron Clear.
"I think you have to look that way, but you also have to look that way for every position, not just the tight ends," Chaney said. "The running backs, we have to get more production out of them, all the young wide receivers, we have to get more production. Everybody picks up their productivity. This injury thing happens every year everywhere in football. We are an offense, not an individual. We're going to lose a good football player, but we have (other) good football players here. Hopefully, we can continue on that path to being successful."
PICKING UP THE PIECES
Despite the loss at Florida, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox saw some attributes from his defense that he liked and knows the Vols will continue to make progress.
"They played hard, they played physical," Wilcox said. "They didn't play perfect, but I hope those guys are improving at a pace we expected. We expect them to continue to grow every down they play."
He was pleased that his young defense was not intimated by the environment of playing in The Swamp.
"The mentality of a football player, that is why they came here, is to go play in those games," he said. "It wasn't like before the game, they were sitting there hoping they would get starry eyed.
"If there are guys that end up playing the best then they are going to play. But if it is competitive and its close then we are going to play the guys that we feel are the best match up for us for that game or for that substitution package."
Moving forward, Wilcox is pulling positives from the Florida game as he eyes Buffalo next week.
"I thought the physicality was pretty good at times, he said. "It was a good effort. There was sometimes that were anxious and our anxiety was high- the tempo of it and the speed of it. When we calmed down I thought we did a pretty good job. That is important for us. We need to start games that way. Get over the tempo and anxiety, all that stuff. We have to have a little more fullness about it, and I think we will."