KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee’s defensive linemen aren’t blind or deaf.
They’ve read Derek Dooley’s comments likening them to a “sack of potatoes.” They’ve heard their coach challenge them to play better tonight than they did in the Volunteers’ scrimmage earlier this week.
“I think we get the point,” junior defensive end Malik Jackson said. “They expect more from us.”
And Dooley most definitely expects to see more tonight at 7 in Neyland Stadium. The scrimmage will be closed to the media, but Dooley had little difficulty expressing his disappointment in the defense’s performance after their first major game-like simulation.
“This one will be a lot longer ... more game-like,” Dooley said after Friday’s practice at Haslam Field. “It’s an important scrimmage for the football team, and I told them that. We need to show significant improvement from the first scrimmage, especially from an intangibles standpoint. They’re hot and they’re tired, but they’re hot and tired everywhere in the league right now, and nobody really cares.
“We’ve got 24 hours to get their mind right, and I think they will. But we’ll see.”
Dooley’s orders to the defensive line, particularly the depth-depleted tackles, were simple.
“They need to be productive and disruptive, and take on blocks the right way, be in gaps the right way, play with great mental intensity,” he said.
Point taken, according to junior tackle Rae Sykes.
“We’ve got to go out there and compete to our highest potential,” Sykes said. “We’ve got to give more effort and more competitiveness. We need to work on taking on the double teams and having relentless effort.”
Problems started early in the first scrimmage. Junior tailback Tauren Poole turned a simple power play into a 49-yard run on the first snap.
The rest of the afternoon wasn’t much better, at least until the defense performed well in the scrimmage-ending, two-minute drill.
“It’s kind of the misery of being a head coach,” Dooley said. “It’s like, ‘Great job, offense, but ugh, how can we do that on defense?’ It’s hard to be happy when you’re practicing against each other.”
Sophomore linebacker Herman Lathers offered a simple explanation for Poole’s big run.
“It was just a mental breakdown on our part,” Lathers said. “We didn’t fit it right on that side.”
Dooley and his assistants will scrutinize every aspect of tonight’s work — including more special teams work in the normal flow of the game — but special attention will be paid to the defensive interior.
“I ain’t just going to downgrade the offense like that, but usually the defense comes out and we’re ready to go,” Sykes said. “But like Coach Dooley said, I don’t think we were all the way into it and focused like we usually are. We studied more, and we’ll be ready to go.
“Of course, (the offense) is going to make plays, because they’ve been working just as hard as the defense has. But I believe we just had an off day the other day, and we’ve just got to set our mentality to just come out here and just bust heads and wreck them like we do in practice every day.”
Nothing would please Jackson more.
“It’s really important for us to go out there, fix our mistakes and show the coaches that we can be coachable,” the former Southern California Trojan said. “It’s just little things we’ve got to fix. We know we can do it, and we know we will do it.”
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