KNOXVILLE -- Nightmares, scary sights, hard weapons and bludgeonings.
Those are the terms Derek Dooley used to describe what his University of Tennessee defense will face this coming Saturday, though the words hardly seem appropriate for a Big East Conference team that went 4-8 last season.
While part of that may be typical coachspeak, Dooley genuinely is concerned how the Volunteers will handle Cincinnati's spread offense when the Bearcats visit Neyland Stadium.
"If we have mental errors Saturday," the second-year coach warned at his weekly news conference Monday, "it's going to be a bludgeoning. If we can't tackle in space aggressively with a lot of orange shirts on the ball, it's going to be a track meet."
Cincinnati led the Big East in scoring and yards per game last season and scored 72 points in their season-opening win over an Austin Peay team that had just eight seniors and went 2-9 last season. All-conference dual-threat quarterback Zach Collaros and leading returning rusher Isaiah Pead are back this season.
The Vols faced an up-tempo spread offense in their season-opening win against Montana and allowed 184 yards aside from an 80-yard touchdown pass and an 82-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive against UT's second team. However, facing Cincinnati's spread right after playing Montana's spread might not be much of a factor.
"There's a little carryover, but every spread team's a little different and this team really has elements of everything," Dooley said. "They do a good job because they've got weapons everywhere. What these guys do more than a lot of spread teams is they have an ability to generate big plays down the field. They push it vertically a little more than dinking it out there all the time."
Montana used a lot of quick passes and bubble screens, and Dooley said the Vols missed some assignments and played soft at times in defending those perimeter plays before adjusting. UT did use its five-defensive-back package extensively, and the Bearcats' offense figures to dictate much of the same.
The Vols continue to experiment in the secondary, specifically with their nickel package. Eric Gordon was the nickel back about half the time and Prentiss Waggner slid from safety to nickel back with freshman Brian Randolph at safety the rest of the time. Waggner, who is used to shifting from corner and safety, said Monday he likes playing nickel back.
"I'd like to see that happen more and more, because with the nickel you can do so much," the junior said. "You can blitz off the edge, and I can go back to the corner days and go down and cover man-to-man."
Waggner had locked down a starting cornerback spot in preseason camp before star free safety Janzen Jackson's dismissal, so the Vols might prefer to use him there.
"We're not going to be settled for a while," Dooley said of the secondary. "We're going keep seeing where we go. It's work in progress."
Dooley's motivational ploy this week will be Cincinnati's three-year run of 33 wins and two BCS bowls under Brian Kelly, who's now at Notre Dame. The Bearcats enter their second year under Butch Jones and should be much improved from 2010.
The Vols showed they had improved against spread offenses from a year ago, but now the test gets harder.
"I feel like we improved from a year ago," Dooley said, "but there's a lot of scary things that you see that the better the team is, the more you get exposed. Sometimes things look good, but you go, 'Uh-oh,' and the other team's looking at it going, 'Oh, wow, there's an opportunity there.'
"We're going to find out how we can really handle the spread this week because these guys are really good. Even last year with the season that they had -- first-year coach, lot of change, it's always difficult -- they had Oklahoma beat and scoring was not the issue. It's going to be a hard one."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.