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Previewing Alabama vs. Tennessee: The Volunteer defense

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Jeremy Pruitt is trying to recast the Volunteer defense in the mold of his former employer…how far along is that project?

Tennessee v Auburn
As expected with a Pruitt defense, the Vols swarm to the ball with gusto.
Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

Anyone who’s followed college football in the last decade knows who Jeremy Pruitt is, and what he expects from his defenses.

The former Tide player and coach has championship rings from his previous work at Florida State and most recently, Alabama. He’s known for taking defenses with talent and turning them into beasts through his amalgam of aggressive press man coverage, unrelenting blitzes, and unmatched physicality. His defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer, another former Bama player and coach, has the same modus operandi when it comes to attacking offenses. He said upon his hiring that his defenses dictate the in-game environment to the offense rather than reading and responding to what an offense tries to do.

This all sounds great. But the Vols have had one of the most anemic defenses in the SEC East for the last several years. While they were decent enough against the run with intermittent flashes of pass rushing greatness, their overall numbers were not impressive, and the in-game results were even worse. In fact, until last weekend’s victory over Auburn, Tennessee hadn’t won an SEC game in the previous 10 tries.

Pruitt and Sherrer are working to change that however, as both men know what great defenses look like. They began by putting the Vol defense into the 3-4 system so familiar to fans of the Tide and Georgia (another school where both men have coached). They’ve juggled personnel and handed the keys to the kingdom to their secondary. Early returns have been mixed for the team as a whole, but there’s no question that the Volunteer defense has improved. They currently rank in the top-50 of several major defensive statistics, which is a marked improvement over last year’s squad

They’re talented and well-coached (SEC veterans Chris Rumph, Tracy Rocker, Charles Kelly, and Terry Fair round out the defensive coaching roster), and they play an aggressive scheme that will represent the biggest test the Tide has faced since their game with Texas A&M. Is Alabama ready to take the next step against an escalating quality of opponent?

There’s no secret that the Tide emerged from last weekend’s match-up with Missouri a little battered and beaten up. Tua Tagavailoa is still nursing a sprained knee, though he said Monday that he feels better now than he did after the Arkansas game (when the injury originally occurred). The Tide receiving corps is more questionable, as Devonta Smith is out temporarily while he nurses a pulled hamstring, and Henry Ruggs III hasn’t practice much this week after the attack on his ankle by a Mizzou linebacker. The Alabama offense still has exponentially more firepower than Tennessee has seen to date, but there are enough injuries to key players to warrant concern for Alabama against a rugged opponent like the Vols.

Can Alabama continue its march through the SEC schedule? Is Tua’s knee really on the mend? Will Alabama continue to struggle inside the red zone this week? Has the Pruitt defensive reclamation process evolved to the point of challenging an offense like Alabama’s? Or will the Vols be just another speedbump in the Tide’s offensive rear-view come Saturday afternoon?

We’ll have to wait and see. Until then, let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

Pruitt is known as an elite recruiter, an there’s no doubt that in time he will restock the Volunteers’ somewhat depleted defensive roster. He must work with what he’s been given for the moment, but that’s not all bad, as he has a decidedly veteran presence at most positions and a good bit of depth upon which to call.

Pruitt and Sherrer like to call their defense “multiple,” and that’s true to a degree. Though they sometimes line up in an iteration of the nickel with four down linemen, their base is the 3-4 that Pruitt used at Georgia and Alabama. This defense features linebackers on both sides who can act as proxy defensive linemen, so there’s no drop-off in the pass rush.

Anchoring the 3-4 defense of the Vols is massive senior Shy Tuttle (6-2, 311 pounds), a model representative of what a 0-technique two-gapping tackle should look like. He’s big with a low center of gravity, and he can soak up blocks and take on doubles to snarl the interior running lanes. Tuttle is having a good year for a nose, with 16 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and a quarterback hurry. Junior Emmett Gordon (6-4, 305 pounds) has been equally as impressive in relief, as he has 15 tackles, four tackles for loss, and a sack.

The defensive ends are also veterans, as the disruptive senior Kyle Phillips (6-4, 259 pounds) is joined by fellow senior Alexis Johnson (6-4, 295 pounds). Phillips garnered a lot of buzz in the pre-season after early reports that he was tough to block and got off the ball quickly. So far, he hasn’t disappointed, with 25 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a pass broken up, two quarterback hurries, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Because many teams have keyed on Phillips, Johnson is having a career year with 28 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a pass broken up, and two quarterback hurries. Phillips is backed up by senior Paul Bain (6-5, 290 pounds) who has seven tackles, a tackle for loss, and a forced fumble, while sophomore Matthew Butler (6-4, 274 pounds) spells Johnson and has five tackles on the year.

The OLBs in a 3-4 are of the utmost importance to the pass rush and run defense, as they are the shock players who penetrate the backfield and set the edge against the run. The Jack in Tennessee’s defense is the explosive senior Jonathan Kongbo (6-6, 270 pounds), a player with tremendous size and length who has been a force on the edge. Kongbo has 11 tackles, an interception, and four quarterback hurries on his ledger. He’s backed up by sophomore Deandre Johnson (6-4, 235 pounds), who has displayed great quickness off the ball. He has five tackles, two tackles for loss, a quarterback hurry, and a sack.

The other OLB position is the Sam slot, and junior Darrell Taylor (6-4, 240 pounds) has been tremendous in the role this season. Taylor has a great first step and uses his hands well against blockers to slip the edge and get in the quarterback’s face. He has 16 tackles, three sacks, three quarterback hurries, a fumble recovery, and two forced fumbles this season. He is spelled by sophomore Jordan Allen (6-5, 230 pounds), who has four tackles this year.

At Will, the Vols’ starter is yet another senior in Darrin Kirkland, Jr. (6-1, 230 pounds), and he’s had a great start to the 2018 campaign. Kirkland has 27 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, an interception, and a quarterback hurry. Behind him is experienced junior Quart’e Sapp (6-2, 220 pounds). Sapp has not played as much as many expected this season, but he still has 13 tackles. Sophomore Shannon Reid (6-0, 205 pounds) provides additional depth, and he has recorded three tackles.

The Mike is junior Daniel Bituli (6-3, 235 pounds), and Bituli is having himself quite a year. The linebacker leads the team in tackles with 31 along with 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He is relieved by sophomore Will Ignont (6-1, 228 pounds), who has 21 tackles and two tackles for loss.

As was the case in Pruitt’s previous stops at FSU, Georgia, and Alabama, the Vol defensive backs are of critical importance because of the way they are aggressively used against opponents across the spectrum. That said, the Vols have some personnel gaps in the secondary and are trying to build depth through the season.

The primary sore spot is the corner position. Junior starter Baylen Buchanan (5-11, 190 pounds) holds down the right CB position, and while he sometimes struggles to play the style of press man Pruitt demands, he has done a decent job of adapting. Buchanan has 24 tackles, a tackle for loss, and a pass broken up this season. Behind him is fellow junior Marquill Osborne (5-11, 188 pounds), and Osborne has a tackle, a pass broken up, and a blocked kick. Further depth is available in the form of senior D.J. Henderson (6-1, 183 pounds), though Henderson hasn’t played enough to earn stats this season.

The other corner position is manned by a true freshman in Alontae Taylor (6-0, 182 pounds), though Taylor has admittedly been impressive in his first year in Knoxville. He has 21 tackles, a tackle for loss, a pass broken up, two forced fumbles, and a blocked kick this season. His relief is another freshman, Bryce Thompson (5-11, 180 pounds). Thompson has likewise been active in his reserve role, accounting for 19 tackles, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, three passes broken up, a quarterback hurry, and a forced fumble. Junior Carlos Fils-Aime (5-11, 175 pounds) provides additional depth, though he has no stats to speak of.

The safeties are a solid tandem, with junior Nigel Warrior (6-0, 186 pounds) at strong and senior Micah Abernathy (6-0, 195 pounds) at free. Warrior is used in diverse ways in the UT defense, and he has 25 tackles and a tackle for loss this season. Abernathy, who has a heavier amount of coverage responsibility, has 18 tackles, two tackles for loss, a pass broken up, and a fumble return this season. Warrior is backed up by true freshman Trevon Flowers (6-1, 185 pounds), who has nine tackles and a pass broken up, while Abernathy is spelled by sophomore Theo Jackson (6-1, 178 pounds). Jackson has 10 tackles, a tackle for loss, and a fumble recovery. Flowers backs him up as well.

When the Vols go into a nickel look, they typically use sophomore Shaun Shamburger (6-0, 191 pounds) as the nickel. Shamburger is also the third man up at strong safety behind Flowers. So far, he has eight tackles and two passes broken up on the season.

How the Tennessee defense will attack the Alabama offense

Followers of Alabama football won’t be surprised by anything they’ll see from Pruitt and Sherrer this Saturday, as the two defensive masterminds want to craft an Alabama-type squad of their own north of the state line. The Volunteer defense is a work in progress to be sure. But already, through seven games this season, the Vols have shown marked improvement thanks to schematic shifts, better personnel usage, and an overall more aggressive style of play.

As previously stated, Tennessee is playing out of a base 3-4 this season, though multiple looks are positive. Though the personnel may stay the same, Sherrer isn’t above marching an OLB like Kongbo up to the line and putting his hand in the dirt with the three down linemen, presenting a 4-3 defense with 3-4 personnel. Another trademark of the Pruitt/ Sherrer tandem is aggressive, dynamic defensive back play. The coaches charge their defensive backs with doing more than the average secondary, as they blitz often, are expected to contribute heavily in run defense, and they play a physical, highly-contested type of coverage.

Is the Pruitt system working for Tennessee? The early returns indicate that the Vol defense is on the rise. They are giving up 358.8 yards of offense per game (ranked 47th in total defense), with 205.8 yards per game coming through the air (42nd nationally) and 152.7 yards per game on the ground (62nd allowing 4.53 yards per attempt). The Vols are ranked 64th in scoring defense, giving up 25.33 yards per game, 69th in pass efficiency defense, and their third-down defense ranks 53rd nationally with a 36.7 conversion rate against them. They aren’t particularly good at generating turnovers as they only have eight this season (only two on interceptions), and their red zone defense is among the worst in the country at 125th (all 17 opponent trips to the red zone have ended in scores). Though they don’t fare terribly on most defensive categories, footballoutsiders.com puts their Defensive S&P+ ranking at 97th.

So, what’s working well for the Vols, and what isn’t? They are adequate against the pass, which will make things slightly more difficult for the Tide than its last two opponents. The UT run defense is lacking, however, even with a horde of seniors filling out the ranks in the front seven. Alabama has run better as the season has progressed, but there still are the occasional third-and-inches and fourth-and-inches conversion issues that have been embarrassing if nothing else for Alabama. The Vols have increased their physicality this season under Pruitt, and last week’s win over Auburn proved that the defense can make plays when they need to.

But Alabama’s offense is a far more potent killing machine than anything the Vols have seen to date. The Tide is ranked first in total offense with 567 yards per game on average. The passing game generated 350 yards per game (good for fifth nationally) while the running game still averages 216.7 yards per game (29th) despite playing second fiddle to the passing attack. Alabama is the best in the nation in scoring defense with an average of 53.57 points per game, and they are second in third-down conversion rate (56.7 percent). The Tide line protects Tagovailoa and Hurts well, as they’ve allowed a mere five sacks on the season to rank 7th in the country. They’re second in offensive S&P+. The only blight on the Tide’s stat sheet is red zone offense, which has converted at a rate of 82.5 percent (80th in the country.)

Against passing teams, the Vols will change up their front between the 3-4 and 4-3 to give a quarterback numerous looks while playing nickel in the back-end. As is the case with Alabama’s defense, sometimes the Jack or Sam will play standing up from behind the line of scrimmage, and sometimes they’ll line up outside of the end and put a hand in the dirt. Both defensive ends play the 5-technique with the nose in 0-tech, and those three defensive linemen can two-gap to create attack vectors for the OLBs coming from either side.

In coverage, Pruitt and Sherrer both like to challenge receivers off the line and knock them off their routes, which can affect the timing and precision of a well-honed attack like the one Alabama has with Tua in the game. They’ll jam at the line with physicality, then play press man coverage to tighten throwing windows for the opposing quarterback. When they Vols go into nickel, it’s usually Shamburger who comes in as the fifth defensive back to handle three WR sets. The corners play man most of the time, but there is a single high safety over the top to provide assistance (usually the free safety Abernathy). Warrior, the strong safety, has a hybrid responsibility. He has coverage responsibility for tight ends and backs underneath, but he tends to hang around the box so he can step in to support the run defense when backs barrel down the middle or spill outside. He is also a frequent blitzer who can slip into the backfield behind the bulk up front.

To compound the pressure on the opposing signal caller, they’ll dial up a relentless barrage of blitzes that can come from any angle on the field. Both Pruitt and Sherrer are known for using the secondary in blitz packages because defensive backs can attack from unexpected angles with speed and athleticism that can’t be matched by lumbering offensive linemen. That said, neither coach spends a lot of energy disguising coverages. There aren’t a lot of last-minute movements and shifts. Those corners and safeties just get in position and come full-speed to maximize their quickness advantage and disrupt offensive timing.

The blitzes Alabama is likely to see Saturday will feature five, six, or seven defenders. There’s not a lot of zone underneath in those cases, as the Vols are willing to bring the house and trust their corners to play man long enough to let the pressure sink deep. It’s common for Sherrer to line up six on the line of scrimmage and bring them all, along with the Mike linebacker, to force a rapid decision by the QB.

As was the case with Pruitt’s previous defenses at other stops, the whole of the system is predicated on attack to force the quarterback into costly errors that generate turnovers and missed conversions. They aren’t above blitzing on first downs to get in a quarterback’s head, as they’ll do almost anything to crank up the pressure and force errant decisions. The truth of the matter is the Vols don’t have the secondary talent to cover elite receivers all the time, so they count on their pass rush to get pressure, even if it doesn’t manifest in sacks, that lead a quarterback to defer to a short-gain quick-read at worst or commit turnovers at best.

It’s a pressure defense, and it’s the first one like it Alabama has faced this year. If successful, that pressure builds and magnifies, causing the wheels to come off perfectly capable offenses once the panic and desperation begin to settle in. The style of play will mark a challenge for the Tide, and it’ll be interesting to see how Tagovailoa and the Tide fends off the orange-clad blitzkrieg.

The Result

Fortunately for Alabama, neither of its top two quarterbacks have appeared to be phased by pressure. They have three turnovers between them through seven games, and only one of those came via interception (Hurts threw it). That speaks to quality decision making on the part of the Tide’s QBs, and the O line has done a great job to date in pass pro to allow Tua to navigate his progressions and find the open man.

Tennessee’s pass rush hasn’t been overly successful despite the constant blitzing and pressure, as they’ve only generated 12 sacks this season (ranked 64th). As Nick Saban likes to remind us, however, it’s not sacks that are an accurate predictor of a team’s ability to apply pressure. That said, the Vols seem to do a good job of forcing bad decisions against mediocre lines like the one they played last week, while they struggle against lines that dominate like the one they faced against UGA. Alabama’s line is excellent in pass protection, and they’ll need to continue to be to protect the ailing knee of their star quarterback.

Expect Alabama to use the same recipe they’ve used to date. They’ll let Jerry Jeudy battle through press coverage and shred the secondary while Tua drops dimes. They’ll use tight end Irv Smith to slice up the underneath, which is admittedly a weak spot for the Vols. They’ll give a team that short-gain underbelly to prevent big plays, and OC Mike Locksley will take those gain and turn them into explosiveness later.

That’s not to say that Tennessee can’t do some things defensively to confound Alabama’s vaunted offense. That press coverage will get old, though Jeudy taunted future opponents by inviting them to press. That’s isn’t without merit, however, as he’s torched every team that has tried to manhandle him this season to date. They will attack receivers’ routes off the line of scrimmage, and that could frustrate other receivers who like a cleaner release to get downfield. Alabama will be without Devonta Smith and possibly Ruggs this week, so they’ll be working with a somewhat depleted corps that hasn’t seen the kind of tight coverage Tennessee will throw at them.

Jaylen Waddle could be quite a weapon for the Tide this week, however, given the soft underneath coverage they’ll get from the Vols. The receiver thrives in space, and if Tua can catch the Vols in a blitz when they bring six or seven, there will be nothing but space beyond the line of scrimmage. If he can get the ball in Waddle’s hands, there will be some long, electrifying runs to add to the freshman’s highlight reel this weekend.

The one caveat is if the Vols can find a way to disrupt the passing game, whether through the pass rush or jamming at the line. Any precision passing game like the one the Tide has with Tagovailoa relies on timing. Without it, those beautiful balls that Tua has been throwing would fall to the turf. The Volunteers will expend a lot of energy in trying to delay the Tide receivers upon release with contact. They won’t be fruitful all the time, but when they are, they could kill drives and cost Alabama important conversions. It’s the low-hanging fruit for the Tennessee defense, at least until Bama proves that they can overcome such a tactic and keep their offense on schedule.

Against the run, expect Tennessee to jam the interior lanes while setting the edge to force the run inside. It’s the same thing Alabama does. Because they have lumbering outside linebackers, they count on keeping runs inside where they can do less damage. On the edges, an elite, elusive back like Josh Jacobs would make them pay and easily overmatch a 240-pound linebacker in terms of speed. The Vols have good size in the middle, but when Alabama properly executes the blocking scheme and gives Damien Harris, Najee Harris, and Jacobs even a little daylight, they will have an athleticism advantage that can be parlayed into big gains.

Expect Alabama to have another explosive offensive day if Tua plays and is on top of his game. Even if Jalen Hurts got the start, one would have to believe that the Tide would have the upper hand given the talent disparity on either side of the ball. Though Smith and possibly Ruggs may be out, Alabama still has more electrifying playmakers than the Vols can cover.

Tennessee will give Alabama yet another test this week, and it’s one the Tide will have to pass with flying colors to move on. If Alabama is healthy on offense, it’s likely that the worst-case scenario would be a lethargic but effective campaign of devastation against the Volunteer defense. If the Vols can’t achieve their goals by disrupting the passing game, jamming receivers, generating effective pressure, or bouncing the run inside, then the Tide could put up the kind of numbers they routinely posted in the first five weeks of the season.