KNOXVILLE — The chances are pretty high that Brian Randolph will find himself on an island Saturday afternoon.
One of Oregon's offensive skill-position speedsters will break through Tennessee's front seven, and the Volunteers' safety will be the only thing separating the Duck from the end zone.
Randolph, LaDarrell McNeil and Byron Moore are always Tennessee's last line of defense, and one missed tackle by any of the safeties against the second-ranked Ducks will be the cue for Oregon's band to fire up the fight song.
"There's always pressure to get them on the ground, but especially this week," Randolph said this week. "They've got shifty backs and stuff like that, so we're just going to try to limit the open space. We're going to try to get tight coverage and eliminate the possibility of big plays.
"We haven't had too many missed tackles. We've had a couple here and there, but for the most part I think we're pretty good at tackling. They're pretty good. It's going to be like playing a top-tier SEC team, and I think we're going to be up for the challenge."
Tennessee heads to Eugene today feeling pretty good about its plan to handle Oregon's fast tempo, but it's the Ducks' raw speed that has the concern of the Vols' coaching staff. Tennessee's tackling will be tested by the legs of quarterback Marcus Mariota, running back De'Anthony Thomas and receivers including Josh Huff and Bralon Addison. It's difficult to simulate that part of Oregon's attack.
Last week, Virginia defenders thought they had the angles on Mariota and Thomas, but the two outran the Cavaliers' pursuit on 71- and 40-yard touchdown sprints in the 59-10 rout.
"Tackling in space and leveraging the ball -- those are going to be the challenges," Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "The ball's going to get out on the perimeter, and they've got to do a good job of getting on angles and closing space and making sure that they get the guy down.
"I think they've watched enough film that they're pretty well aware that these guys are fast. That doesn't take anybody too long. One or two plays, and you could tell that they've got great speed on offense. We've harped on angles since day one, going back to spring, so it's nothing new. They've just got to go out and be able to perform."
If the Vols struggle to do that, though, they wouldn't be the first team to have trouble slowing Oregon's big-play, quick-strike offense. In just two games this season, the Ducks have 23 plays of 20 or more yards and a dozen plays of 30 or more yards and lead the nation in both big-play categories.
Only 52 teams have 10 plays of 20 or more yards, and Utah, Baylor and Texas are the only teams with double-digit plays of 30-plus yards.
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said Oregon's offense is built on "pace and space," and the Vols will have to tackle well one on one, an area in which they struggled during last season's disaster.
"I think we haven't even arrived on that," Vols secondary coach Willie Martinez said. "We still make the same mistakes. We're making strides, we're improving, but until you play a team like Oregon that challenges you in space, you're not really going to quite know.
"Again, we've made some improvements in those areas, but let's see on Saturday how that hangs up."
Jones said the defense missed five tackles against Western Kentucky last week, though that seems low compared to last season, when the Vols sometimes seem to miss five tackles on one play.
"Missed tackles are a direct correlation to big plays," Jones said. "The speed level's going to be different, the space is going to be different and we have to continue to work on that. A lot of that is just fundamentals."
A lot of it, too, will be how Tennessee responds to those big plays, particularly with Oregon likely snapping the ball anywhere from 10 to 20 seconds after the whistle following the big gain.
"Even if you had a really good play, or if you didn't have a good play," Martinez said, "there's really no time to think about that with this group."
Said Randolph: "If we see somebody getting wide-eyed out there, we've just got to bring them back down to Earth and don't let things [get] bigger than they really are."
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 ...
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