KNOXVILLE — Missouri's defensive line might have snuck up on some offenses this season.
That won't be the case for Tennessee's veteran offensive line.
The Tigers boast a defensive front that's playing and producing well, but it's had the Volunteers' respect since the two lines faced off against each other in Knoxville last season.
"It's one of those things where you play a game, and it's the next year that you definitely remember that opponent from a year ago because there was something that happened in the course of the game that you remember," Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney said after the Vols practiced on Wednesday afternoon.
"It's their style of play, who they are, and to Missouri's credit, they have that style of play in terms of relentless and high-motor. They work extremely hard at the game, and they play off each other, so it's one of those games in which you've got to play at that level as well and beyond in order to win, and especially so on the road.
"They've definitely got our attention from last year in hearing the guys talk about it. It's easy, too, [when] you cut the film on, and you see what's going on. It doesn't take long to figure it out: these guys are pretty relentless."
Missouri is third in the SEC in rushing defense, holding opponents to just 111.4 yards on the ground per game. Neither Florida, which ran for 215 yards against Tennessee, nor South Carolina, which boasts the SEC's leading rusher in tailback Mike Davis, cracked 100 rushing yards against Missouri the past two games.
Then there's Michael Sam, who leads the league with 10 sacks. First-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones called the fifth-year senior defensive end "as good a player as we've faced." Four other Tigers have at least two sacks this season.
Tennessee's allowed only eight sacks in eight games this season.
"We have a lot of respect for them," Vols right guard Zach Fulton said, "because they're just great, high-motor guys, and they're relentless in everything they do.
"Every D-line in the SEC is going to be good, so it's nothing new."
In its first season in the SEC, Missouri finished ninth in the league in stopping the run and 10th in total defense. The Tigers lost defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who was the 13th overall selection in the NFL draft and now starts for the New York Jets. Yet the unit anchors a defense that's allowing 40 fewer yards rushing per game and leads the SEC in turnovers.
"They were pretty good last year," Tennessee right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "They're playing inspired football right now. Coach Jones said it, and they're all playing well together."
Tennessee's offensive linemen have said repeatedly that their job doesn't change regardless of who's playing quarterback, but James acknowledged the veteran group knows it needs to step up even more with freshman Josh Dobbs making the first start of his career.
"We want him to feel comfortable," said the senior, who's started every game of his career. "For him to play to the best of his ability, we've got to make sure he's confident in what he's doing. You want to protect a little harder. You don't want him to get hit. You don't want to shake him up at all."
The approach and the mindset don't change for the Vols up front, though. The group's played prove-it games against Oregon, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama already this season. Saturday provides a similar test of strength-on-strength.
"Personally, you want to stay up for any game," James said. "I don't want anybody to go out there and embarrass me. We're out there trying to embarrass other people. If you come sleeping one day, that's your fault. We take the approach every week like we're playing the best.
"We still want to try to get all five lights on at the same time. Sometimes we've got four guys and one guy is not doing the right thing, or three guys and two guys. If we can get all five, that's when we can be at the best of our ability."
There's only one way to measure that in Mahoney's mind.
"The only thing that matters is winning, and we didn't [last week]," he said. "We could sit back and go, 'Well, we did this,' or, 'We did that.' We didn't win, but I think the guys have stepped up and have responded to what's been thrown at them. There's things that need to be better by us, and we know that. We just continue to keep working on that.
"This week, no surprise, it ends up being a defense that, who knows, it's one you rank up there. People say Florida and Alabama and all that -- just look at the numbers of what they've done. They're a really outstanding group, and I expect our guys to rise up and play well. I completely believe that."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...