Oct. 30, 2013
By: Alex Cate
The old saying holds true, football is won and lost in the trenches.
The Volunteer's offensive line has received their fair share of accolades but the consistent performance by coach Steve Stripling's defensive lineman has been invaluable in Team 117's success this season.
The senior stacked group has led the Tennessee defense which has already surmounted 18 turnovers through eight games, passing last season's total of 17.
After using a 3-4 base defense last season, the Tennessee defense made the switch back to a 4-3 scheme when first year head coach Butch Jones was hired. With Jones came Stripling and the defensive line mentality shifted.
"Well I'm happy with their senior leadership," said Stripling. "They come to work every day with a smile on their face and there is never any prodding on my part to get them ready to practice.
So far they've been able to anchor the Tennessee defense and create some havoc in big situations. Through eight games the Vols have recorded 12 sacks - only 5 shy of their 2012 total. What's been even more noticeable is their timing.
Late game pressure on opposing quarterbacks has provided a spark to the entire Tennessee team. Nothing was more evident of that clutch timing than when senior Daniel McCullers and redshirt senior Marlon Walls combined to sack South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw with just over five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. A shaken up Shaw was removed from the contest, the Tennessee defense held and Michael Palardy drilled a game winning field goal to take down the No. 11 Gamecocks.
Even with such a veteran starting line, there is still plenty of teaching going around. Stripling feels his group getting better each week and the senior leaders have echoed those feelings.
"There is still so many things to improve on but I think each week we're getting a little bit better, a little bit better and starting to understand what Coach Strip wants as a d-line," said senior defensive tackle Daniel Hood who had a career game against South Carolina.
Even when it looked grim after fall camp injuries to senior Jacques Smith and true freshmen Corey Vereen, the defensive line stayed strong with the emergence of players like Corey Miller who has made all eight starts at defensive end this season.
In August the season's toughest tests looked to take place in October. With the emergence of Missouri and Auburn, that stretch extends into November making it all the more important for consistent defensive line play.
Some of the biggest praise from Stripling is directed towards how his lineman have handled that stretch and how the seasoned leaders have been able to prepare from week to week.
"I think this week there's been a lot of inward focus and what we're trying to do is identify those areas where we weren't very good last week and right now I think everybody is just focused on doing their job and that's the way it is on defense," he said after Tennessee's loss to Alabama.
"They're excited about being here and they're mature enough to understand a game like [Alabama] when we played poorly, that along with direction they can identify their weaknesses so they're an easy group to coach that way because they're mature, they've been through it, they're very, very wanting to get better."