KNOXVILLE -- The cloud of mystery entering Tennessee's game with 14th-ranked South Carolina extends beyond the Volunteers' quarterback situation.
While the Gamecocks have just five snaps and no passes to evaluate from UT's new freshman starter Justin Worley, UT doesn't have much more data to go on for South Carolina's rushing attack, which will be in its first game without star tailback Marcus Lattimore. His season ended two weeks ago in a win at Mississippi State.
"They've got some speed backs there and some guys with power, so they're not going to just all of a sudden abandon the running game," UT defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "They may come out and throw it 40 times and use the quarterback as a running tool as well, so you don't really know because you haven't seen enough on tape to have an idea. You've got to kind of prepare for what they've done and what they've shown and make your best judgments on what you think they're going to do."
Brandon Wilds, a 6-foot-1, 223-pound true freshman with only 75 yards on 13 carries this season, will start at tailback for the Gamecocks. Junior Kenny Miles will be the second tailback, and he's played in only three games this season due to injury. Eric Baker and Josh Hinch, a senior walk-on from Knoxville's Austin-East High School, could also play, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said earlier this week.
Wilds is just the Gamecocks' fifth leading rusher this season behind Lattimore, dismissed quarterback Stephen Garcia, starting quarterback Connor Shaw and Bruce Ellington, South Carolina's star basketball player who doubles as a quarterback in the Wildcat formation. The Gamecocks do still have star receiver Alshon Jeffery, who had a tiebreaking 70-yard catch-and-run score in the 38-24 win against UT last season.
"It's hard to get much of a feel," UT head coach Derek Dooley said. "They're going to do a lot of different stuff. They've had two weeks to prepare. It will be tough."
Having just faced Alabama's Trent Richardson, several of the Vols' defensive players were looking forward to facing Lattimore, the reigning Southeastern Conference freshman of the year. None of them, though, were looking forward to it more than sophomore defensive lineman Corey Miller, who played with Lattimore at Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C. Miller said he watches Lattimore's games when can and the highlights when he cannot.
"Of course for me, I would love to play him," Miller said. "High school teammate, love the guy to death. I'm sure their back behind Lattimore is also a great back, so we've got to come out and play hard as usual. It's just a disappointment he's hurt right now."
Couch coming on
Defensive tackle Maurice Couch had high expectations for his first season at UT, but the junior college transfer found transitioning to the SEC a little more difficult than he thought. The redshirt sophomore has held a consistent role in the Vols' defensive-line rotation all season, though, and the 6-2, 305-pounder might have had his most active game in the loss to Alabama last week.
"I could have helped my defense [more]," Couch said of this five-tackle performance against the Crimson Tide. "There's always room for improvement. I think I can do better."
Conditioning, weight and the jump in physicality were Couch's biggest adjustments from the football he played at Garden City Community College in Kansas. The Vols were hoping Couch would come in and be a disruptive player in the middle, but he's had to fight through a couple of minor injuries and asthma that initially hampered his conditioning. He's filled more a run-stopper role so far this season.
"Mo has really improved," fellow defensive lineman Malik Jackson said. "He still has a long way to go. He's just young. I feel like in a few years he'll be one of the best guys that ever came here. He works hard and he plays within the defense. He's learning and plays double teams really good. He's going to be a force to be reckoned with next year."
Couch and Jackson have been part of a defensive front that's limited Richardson, LSU's Spencer Ware and Georgia's Isaiah Crowell to 77, 80 and 58 yards, respectively, and a combined 3.6 yards per carry. Those three have a combined nine games of 100 or more rushing yards this season.
"I thought in the run game we were average [against Alabama]," defensive line coach Lance Thompson said. "We are not there in the pass game. We are doing some good things in the run game. For us to hold those three running backs for three consecutive weeks to less than a hundred, I can't say we're horrible, but I know we definitely are not where we need to be."
Linebacker Curt Maggitt was in a noncontact jersey with a black sleeve on his left calf during Thursday morning's practice, and he was moving around gingerly during the limited work he did do. ... Dontavis Sapp continues to work at Maggitt's outside linebacker spot with the first-team defense. ... Marlin Lane practiced Thursday after doing very little on Wednesday, and the freshman tailback had a black sleeve on his left knee, the same knee in which he tore ligaments late in his junior year of high school. ... Michael Palardy and Matt Darr officially are bracketed at punter, and Dooley said which one will kick is a "feel thing" after Palardy punted the entire game against Alabama.