KNOXVILLE -- Monte Kiffin didn't get to this point in his career by making excuses, and the University of Tennessee defensive coordinator didn't take that route Thursday afternoon.
Kiffin refused to blame the injuries and suspensions to his linebacker and defensive backs for last Saturday's 42-17 loss at Ole Miss. A defense that had been one of the nation's rest finally reached a breaking point in the back seven, and the Rebels' running game exposed it.
Third-team middle linebacker Herman Lathers had trouble lining up the defense. Redshirt freshman Prentiss Waggner played free safety, and junior walk-on Tyler Wolf was used in the five-back package. Senior All-SEC linebacker Rico McCoy, the team's leading tackler, gutted his way to eight stops on a bad knee but missed several plays he typically makes. Junior strongside linebacker LaMarcus Thompson missed the late part of the game after his latest neck and shoulder stinger got him carted off the field.
And where did Kiffin point?
Kiffin said personnel losses are "just part of the game" and that he and his staff simply didn't put the backups in proper position to make plays.
"We've got to get lined up and not get out of whack sometimes," Kiffin said. "That's our responsibility as coaches, and it starts with me. I totally take responsibility for that. We've got to get our players back to where they can play fast. We are young and things like that, so we've got to make sure we're not trying to do too much, and they can just put their feet in the ground and play football. We do have some quickness, and we do have some speed, but we can't be thinking too much.
"Sometimes I think when you're young, and you've got some people that don't have a lot of experience, that's our responsibility as coaches to make sure we know what we're doing, and get lined up and play."
Those challenges remain in place for tonight's home finale against Vanderbilt (2-9, 0-7 SEC).
UT (5-5, 2-4) could be without McCoy, Thompson and top junior cornerback Dennis Rogan, who injured a quadriceps late in the Ole Miss game and hasn't practiced this week.
Wolf might start in place of Waggner, who struggled against the Rebels, but both should play in the nickel package anyway.
The Vols' first-team linebackers could be freshman Greg King, Lathers and sophomore walk-on Shane Reveiz. That could be especially problematic, considering UT's defensive scheme.
"We've been in some unique situations with our linebackers," Kiffin said. "We play a 4-3. Maybe we need a defense where you only had two linebackers all the time, we'd be OK. But I don't think there's a defense like that.
"Our front get their feet in the ground, and they really just play. Our adjusting is done with our linebackers, and this has taxed them really hard."
No excuses will be tolerated, though, according to coaches. Head coach Lane Kiffin said this week that his team will simply finds its best 11 options in base and special sets and expect those players to produce.
Waggner said the Vols understand that message.
"The coaches say if you're in the game, you're considered a starter," Waggner said. "They're going to coach you like you're the starter, and you're supposed to play like a starter. You're supposed to get the job done."
And that's what will happen tonight, Monte Kiffin said.
"Last week was tough," he said. "You've just got to put it behind you and move ahead. We've really been a group that's showed up every week, even though we didn't always win and didn't always play perfect. But last weekend, that's not acceptable, and we've got to bounce back.
"We're going to show up this time. These guys have a lot of pride. We're going to play our tails off. Again, I don't know if we're going to play perfect or how we're going to do."
Vanderbilt is dealing with its own defensive problems. Star cornerback Myron Lewis has been ruled out with a knee injury. Linebacker Patrick Benoist, the Commodores' second-leading tackler, will be a game-time decision following last week's concussion.
Commodores coach Bobby Johnson didn't deny the impact of those setbacks but said that didn't deter his team's goal of playing its "best game of the year" tonight.
"If you can get a win against a team that has dominated the series between the two schools the last 30 years, you will feel a whole lot better about your season," Johnson said. "Hopefully a win would give us a validation of some of the things that we think we're improving on.
"Hopefully, we can run the ball better than we were earlier in the year and stay consistent on defense, even though we're missing some people."
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