published Monday, October 1st, 2012

Tennessee targets better run defense

Tennessee coach Derek Dooley congratulates his players as they exit the field at the end of the first half.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley congratulates his players as they exit the field at the end of the first half.
Photo by Patrick Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

RUNNING DOWN THE ROAD

After Georgia erupted for 282 rushing yards on Saturday, Tennessee fell 18 spots to 92nd nationally in rushing defense. The Vols are surrendering 187.8 yards per game, and Florida ran for 336 yards against them. Here's what follows for Tennessee after the open date this week.

Rush NCAA Leading

Opponent // YPG // Rank // Rusher (YPG)

Mississippi State // 184.3 // 46th // Ladarius Perkins (97.3)

Alabama 188.2 // 42nd // Eddie Lacy (62.8)

South Carolina 171.8 // 56th // Marcus Lattimore (88.0)

Troy // 173.4 // 51st // Shawn Southward (103.2)

Missouri // 137.4 // 85th // Kendial Lawrence (79.0)

Vanderbilt // 169.8 // 57th // Zac Stacy (85.3)

Kentucky // 119.6 // 103rd // Raymond Sanders (65.0)

KNOXVILLE — Derek Dooley dubbed one concern he had with his Tennessee football team as early as the end of spring practice.

Five games into the Volunteers' season, the coach's label is being proven true.

Two Southeastern Conference opponents have run for 618 yards and multiple long touchdowns on the Vols' defense, and Dooley has an extra week to examine the problem and find a solution as Tennessee enters the week of its open date.

"We're better in a lot of areas, but we've got to shore up this stopping-the-run issue," he said after his team's 51-44 loss at No. 5 Georgia on Saturday. "We've got to watch the film and evaluate our personnel. If we've got to make some changes, we'll make some changes, and then we've got to learn to play better in the front seven."

As Dooley suggested, Tennessee could make changes in its secondary. Freshman LaDarrell McNeil saw his role increase at safety in the Vols' base defense in place of Brent Brewer, who struggled in run defense and pass coverage against the Bulldogs' speedy skill players. McNeil has drawn praise from Tennessee's coaching staff for his talent, but before Saturday he'd mainly been a special-teams player.

After Dooley voiced a concern that the defense was too complex schematically in the loss to Florida, the Vols struggled with football fundamentals against Georgia.

"Keeping contain, getting your run-fits down, getting off blocks and making tackles," cornerback Prentiss Waggner said. "That's pretty much simple as that."

Tennessee missed numerous tackles in the open field. When Georgia tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall broke into the secondary, the Vols couldn't get them down. In the past three games, Tennessee has allowed touchdown runs of 80, 70, 75, 51 and 72 yards.

The Bulldogs had seven runs of 10 or more yards and eight plays of 20 or more yards in the first three quarters before going into clock-killing mode.

"We've just got to do a better job of wrapping guys up and getting them down," Tenessee safety Byron Moore said. "If they break a big play, we've just got to get them down as quick as possible."

Dooley said Tennessee misses injured safety Brian Randolph, who's been the last line of defense since the middle of last season. While the secondary look the worst on the long runs, the problems start up front before the opponent even reaches the open field.

Daniel McCullers, the 360-pound nose tackle, made his presence felt with five tackles, but Georgia's initial game plan called for a number of designed runs to the edge, which eventually opened some inside lanes.

Linebacker A.J. Johnson diagnosed the problem as "a little bit of everything."

"Once we played our technique, we got what we wanted," linebacker Herman Lathers said. "It's just mistakes we can't make if we want to win. We prepared for it, and we just didn't come in and execute like we were supposed to.

"We put our offense in a bad situation, and we can't do that as a defense."

The Vols did make some timely plays defensively. Moore ran a pass that defensive end Corey Miller tipped at the line back for a touchdown. Two more fumbles led to second-quarter touchdowns, and Georgia ran just 13 plays for 22 yards in the fourth quarter as Tennessee forced four straight punts.

The open-date emphasis, though, figures to address a problem Dooley felt a long time ago he'd have.

"We proved to ourselves and to a lot of people that we can ... have a level of resiliency and fight that I think this team is not given enough credit on," he said Sunday morning on his coach's show. "We showed that, but we also showed that we still have a long way to go if we're going to win. We're making progress, and we have to stay the course.

"The open date can be a great thing for a team, or it can be a bad thing for a team if you don't manage it the right way. We're going to have some objectives for every player on how he can improve. We're going to have some objectives as a team on how we can improve, and then of course we've got to use it to recover."

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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