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Previewing Alabama vs. Tennessee: The Volunteer defense

After coming into the season with the "much improved" label, the unit continues to struggle

UT El Tractorcito
UT El Tractorcito
Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

In what has become a familiar refrain for fans of the Tennessee Volunteers, the product on the field simply hasn't lived up to the pre-season hype. It was widely believed that 2015 would be the Vols' year to reclaim supremacy in the SEC East, with an unproven quarterback at Georgia and a rebuilding project ongoing in Gainesville. Riding Butch Jones' offense and what was supposedly a dramatically upgraded defense, the East was there for the Vols' taking, to hear the pundits tell it.

That image, however, was shattered immediately after the season began. First, the Vol defenses ceded 30 points in a season-opening win over Bowling Green. It was obvious then that the defense was still a work in progress, but instead of progressing, things only got worse for Tennessee. Presumed starting defensive lineman Danny O'Brien was suspended indefinitely by Jones, and the Vols' defensive leader, Curt Maggitt, went down with an injury in Oklahoma's comeback win over UT (The Vols led 17-0 at one time before their defense collapsed and allowed the Sooners to storm back for a victory.) Then there was the debacle against Florida, another game in which the Vols led before allowing the Gators to convert three (count ‘em, three) fourth down conversions in the fourth quarter on the way to winning the game.

Sure, the Vols showed promise in their victory against Georgia, but bear in mind, they did so against a Georgia team that was playing without leading rusher Nick Chubb for most of the game (also bear in mind, Bama gave up only 10 to Georgia...with Chubb in the lineup).

Make no mistake, the Vol defense is not what one would consider SEC elite at this point in the season. They are young and they lack solid fundamentals. Can the "Big Orange" do anything to stop an Alabama offensive attack that seems to be gaining steam as QB Jake Coker becomes more confident in his starting role? We'll find out Saturday afternoon. In the meantime, let's take a look at the Vol defense...

The Roster

One thing Jones has accomplished during his tenure in Knoxville is that he has upgraded the level of talent on both sides of the ball through recruiting. For whatever reason, Jones has been able to lure some of the Southeast's best and brightest to the hill country. While a definite step up from the Derek Dooley-coached Vol squads, that talent Jones has recruited has yet to materialize in a nasty SEC defense.

The Vol defensive line was supposedly a strength heading into the season, with at least one potential star in the making at defensive end. Sophomore Derek Barnett (6-3, 257 pounds) is easily the best lineman of the group, a prototypical 4-3 defensive end who is light enough to retain speed, rangy enough to shed blocks and bat passes and bulky enough to flatten running backs and tight ends in the pass rush. Barnett is third in tackles among Vol defenders (32 tackles), with two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. He is a force who will only get better as his technique becomes more refined. At the left defensive end position, junior LaTroy Lewis (6-3, 286 pounds) has been steady if not spectacular, offering good containment and decent pass rush ability. Lewis is regularly spelled by freshman Kyle Phillips (6-4, 259 pounds) and junior Corey Vereen (6-2, 249 pounds), both of whom have seen enough playing time to accrue meaningful stats thus far (Phillips has recorded a sack, while Vereen has logged 15 tackles).

Inside, the Vols line up sophomore nose tackle Kendall Vickers (6-3, 286 pounds), who is much lighter than the aforementioned O'Brien but has the edge in overall athleticism. At the other tackle position, Owen Williams (6-0, 297 pounds) is a typical run-plugger, though he alternates regularly with prized recruit Khalil McKenzie (6-3, 344 pounds), who obviously has great size for the position and is improving by the game.

At linebacker, the Vols were struck a tremendous blow with the injury to Maggitt, who led UT in sacks in 2014 with 11 while finishing second on the team in tackles. However, junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin (6-0, 225 pounds) has stepped up at Will linebacker to fill Maggitt's shoes, both as a statistical front-runner and team leader. Reeves-Maybin leads the team in tackles with 56 (in addition to three sacks and eight tackles for loss). Reeves-Maybin is a quality linebacker with good closing speed and solid instincts, and he is one of only a handful of Vol defenders not severely lacking in terms of fundamentals. Filling out the Sam and Mike linebacker positions are freshmen Austin Smith (6-3, 236 pounds) and Darrin Kirkland Jr. (6-1, 224 pounds), respectively. Kirkland has two sacks on the season, and is on a steady upward trajectory as he gains experience. Both young players are spelled by jack-of-all-trades back-up Kenny Bynum (6-1, 227 pounds), who rotates between the three linebacking slots when needed.

The Vols' best defensive back is junior Cameron Sutton (5-11, 186), who, though lacking in size, makes up for it in aggressiveness and ball skills. Sutton is an active contributor not only in coverage, but as a pass rusher and run supporter due to his quickness and instincts (he has accrued 18 tackles and two tfls in 2015). Sutton locks down his side of the field with physical press coverage, often jamming receivers off the line and knocking receivers off of their routes. That aggressiveness, and his overall prowess as a defensive back, often prompts opposing offenses to pick on fellow corner Emmanuel Moseley (5-11, 179 pounds), who is a sophomore. Another diminutive corner, Moseley is routinely challenged through the air, and his size can be a liability against big, physical receivers. Though not a starter, sophomore Todd Kelly Jr. (5-11, 208 pounds) spells Moseley and Sutton, putting up impressive stats of his own with 26 tackles and two interceptions. Junior Malik Foreman (5-10, 178 pounds) is used as the nickel when defensive coordinator John Jancek opts for five defensive backs (generally three corners and two safeties).

The Vols have a good rotation at safety, despite intermittent tackling problems and a lack of attention to fundamentals at times. Senior strong safety LaDarrell McNeil (6-1, 209 pounds) is adequate in both coverage and run support, and senior free safety Brian Randolph (6-0, 220 pounds) has proven stout, as he is second on the team with 34 tackles. Backing up Randolph is junior Evan Berry (5-11, 207 pounds), the younger brother of former Vol All-American safety Eric Berry. Berry, though strong, hasn't won the acclaim of his elder brother...yet.

How the Tennessee Defense Can Stop Alabama

This, friends, will be a tough task to accomplish for a defense that cedes the size, talent and physicality advantages to the Crimson Tide offense. Unlike the Ole Miss defense, which was smaller and less physical than Bama's offensive front, the Vols can't rely on fancy packages and strange alignments to take advantage of opponent hesitation. They run as straight up a 4-3 defense as possible, with the only aberration being the use of a true nose to create an unbalanced front from time to time.

The Volunteer defense does nothing particularly well, entering the Alabama game ranked 72nd against the run (222 yards per game allowed), 90th against the pass (212 yards per game allowed) and 87th in total offense (434 yards per game). With a stable of defensive backs of sub-optimal height who (outside of Sutton) struggle in tackling, it's easy to see why teams like Oklahoma and Florida have been able to shred the Vol secondary at critical moments. The pass rush is also lacking, as the Vols have only nine sacks on the season, good for a tie for 96th in the FBS.

Against the run, it is the poor tackling of the Vols that is the most glaring reason for opposing teams' successes on the ground. For example, an Arkansas running game that Bama absolutely bottled up pounded the Vols for 275 yards on the ground, with running back Alex Collins accounting for 154 of those yards. Against Arkansas, it appeared the Vols didn't understand angles of pursuit or the fallacy of arm tackling at all, and they paid the price with a loss.

As previously stated, the Vol front seven took a tremendous hit with the loss of Maggitt early in the season. The athletic linebacker was a defensive leader and pass rushing terror, and combined with Barnett at end, the duo would have given opposing offenses great pause in the pass rush. When he was still in the lineup, the Vols would line Maggitt and Barnett up on the same side of the formation often, taking advantage of the usual double-team on one player or the other to get his running mate free in the backfield. Without Maggitt's presence, offenses can double Barnett without worrying much about the remainder of the pass-rushing defensive linemen. Truth be told, an offensive line as large as Alabama's should be able to snare up the undersized D line (by SEC standards) without allowing much push.

The one exception is the freshman McKenzie, who at 344 pounds, offers quite a challenge to any offensive line attempting to create space in the center of the Vol front. His technique is unrefined and he sometimes gives away his inherent leverage advantage with shoddy footwork, but he is a load to move regardless. If Alabama's starting center Ryan Kelly can't go this week (he's expected to be ready), reserve center J.C. Hassenauer (or possibly Josh Casher) will have to be ready to deal with the behemoth McKenzie.

Reeves-Maybin will be allowed to make hay and roam the field, and he provides the Vols with their best chance of a big play defensively. Capable in coverage and run support, Reeves-Maybin has been used as a pass rusher behind Barnett at times, in much the same way that Maggitt would have been used. However, he doesn't have the punch of Maggitt, though he is arguably the best defensive player the Vols will put on the field Saturday. Jancek will allow Reeves-Maybin and his fellow linebackers to flow to the gaps, while the tackles attempt to collapse the inside and the ends play contain on the edges. It's a tactic Alabama has seen before, as it's not terribly dissimilar from what the Aggies and Razorbacks did (though the Vols are obviously lacking the Aggies' all-star defensive ends and aggressive pass rush).

Make no mistake, Bama's game plan will be simple: pound the ball inside and out, taking advantage of the Vols' poor fundamentals and smallish defensive front seven. When the Vols load the box against the run, the Tide will still likely possess the upper hand by pure physicality. The Tide will likely double Barnett on running downs and allow Henry to use his big body in space. After all, Henry outweighs every player in the Vol linebacking and secondary units, and if the Bama O line can get him a step of two of free running at the point of attack, the Vols' tackling inadequacies will be highlighted by the size mismatch.

The Tennessee secondary will likewise struggle to stop what Alabama does well in the air. The short slants can tear the Vol defense apart from the inside out, as the linebackers aren't particularly skilled in coverage. Calvin Ridley has no equal in the UT secondary (though he will likely draw coverage from Sutton), and with Ridley's size advantage, Sutton's penchant for press coverage may come back to haunt him in the form of a free-running Ridley.

If Sutton can't lock down his side of the field, the Vol secondary may fall apart completely. Moseley struggles in man coverage, which, in Jancek's scheme, typically results in two-deep coverage to help protect the second corner. When the Vols go into the two-deep, they will loosen the box for the running game, which will make them susceptible to run-pass options that will catch them off guard and out of position.

The Vols' best bet will be to play bend-but-don't-break contain defense, crowd the box, and hope that there are big plays (or that Alabama's passing game struggles). Even then, the Vols will have to do something exceptional in run defense to stop Henry and the Tide offensive line from shoving them up and down the field.

The Result

Quite honestly, the Vol defense gives Alabama myriad positive match-ups, from the smallish secondary versus Bama's rangy receivers to the somewhat undersized defensive line against Bama's massive offensive front. There is literally no position on the field in which the Vols have a physical or talent mismatch against the Alabama offense, and that will make for a rough afternoon for the defenders from the Appalachian hill country.

Against Tennessee, Alabama will have the luxury of executing a balanced offense, given the relative failings of both the Vol run defense and pass coverage. Henry will get 100 yards, even if Kelly can't start at center for the Tide. Kiffin has developed the Alabama offense to include runs inside and out for Henry, whereas previously Drake was the outside option while Henry was used between the tackles. With that newly developed versatility, Henry has become an even more dynamic weapon, and his success, combined with the RPOs, makes Alabama's offense even more dangerous and difficult to anticipate.

Sutton will be isolated on Ridley in all probability, as the Vols use their best cover corner against the opponent's best receiver. Don't be surprised if Jancek goes a step further and dedicates the nickel or free safety to deep coverage against Bama's shiftiest big-play threat. Regardless, Ridley will likely still be explosive, as he has the ability to elude or play through Sutton's jams and slide behind him for potential big plays.

The Ridley-Sutton match-up is not the only one that favors Bama, as the rest of the Tide receiving corps has a height and size advantage against a secondary that attempts to play press coverage.  Richard Mullaney and O.J Howard could be a huge part of the game plan in the inside underneath, as the Vols will be ata  sizable height disadvantage. When Tennessee goes to the nickel, they use three corners in press, a free safety in Cover 1 to aid in over-the-top coverage and a strong safety in the box to protect against the run. Against that defense, Coker has the potential for big plays downfield, as Kiffin can allow him to make the read, let his receivers get behind the press and strike downfield over the coverage.

Simply put, despite a bye week, the Vols will simply not learn solid tackling, proper angles and football intuition before they must face the Tide. Even if they do manage to snarl the interior running lanes, it's a matter of time before Henry wears them down and takes what he wants from their defense. In the meantime, Coker and the Tide receivers can have a field day against a secondary that is among the worst statistically in the nation.