KNOXVILLE - Starting three true freshmen wasn't enough for the Unviersity of Tennessee defense.
The feel and the opponent dictated that adding a fourth was necessary.
The Volunteers began Saturday's 45-23 home win over Cincinnati in their five-defensive back nickel package with freshman Brian Randolph at free safety and Prentiss Waggner at nickelback. Eric Gordon was the first nickelback in the season opener against Montana, and UT went 50-50 between the two lineups against the Grizzlies.
"It's a feel," UT coach Derek Dooley said after the game. "Eric wasn't triggering as fast as he would, and that fast-paced no-huddle [offense], you have to think fast and I think he struggled a little. Brian made eight million mistakes, too. We're a little bit of a mess back there right now, but we held on. We're grinding a little bit."
Randolph finished with two tackles and two pass breakups, and Gordon finished with one stop. UT's coaches like Randolph at safety because it allows them to use Waggner how they'd prefer, but he is a mistake-prone freshman.
The Bearcats' spread offense forced UT into its nickel package most of the afternoon. Daryl Vereen also started the game as the nickel linebacker alongside Austin Johnson, but he was "nicked up," Dooley said, and replaced by sophomore Dontavis Sapp, a converted safety and regular special-teams player who had a sack and forced fumble on Saturday.
Freshman outside linebacker Curt Maggitt also slides to a pass-rushing defensive-end spot in UT's nickel package.
"We have base personnel when they're in two backs and we put our big guys in, but they're whole game is spread," Dooley said. "We put our loose guys in, the little guys, because you've got to have your space guys out there when they've got their space guys out there."
The Vols have played more nickel than base in two games against spread offenses, but UT faces a Florida offense that's transitioning from former coach Urban Meyer's spread to offensive coordinator Charlie Weis' pro-style schemes. That likely means more traditional base formations, though defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox's defense is built on using multiple looks.
"To me we just go with the game plan," said cornerback Marsalis Teague. "To me, if they want to go spread, we're comfortable with our nickel grouping, but going back base shouldn't be a problem for us. We practice it all."
Starting left tackle Dallas Thomas has a mild right knee sprain, but the fourth-year junior is expected to play against Florida, according to Jimmy Stanton, UT's associate athletic director for communication. Thomas was hurt while in protection on the extra-point attempt following the Vols' last touchdown.
The Vols lined up wrong on Cincinnati tailback Isaiah Pead's 65-yard touchdown run on the game's third play. Pead barreled through Vereen's tackle and raced untouched down the Bearcats' sideline the rest of the way.
"We were lined up on the wrong side," safety Brent Brewer said. "We put it on ourselves to get lined up. We've go to listen to the middle linebacker, that's the main person everybody listens to. If he calls the wrong call, then somebody else is running something else then the whole defense is screwed up. We knew the play, we just got lined up wrong."
After allowing 14 points on two drives, UT allowed just nine points on Cincinnati's next eight drives, a stretch that included two key fourth-down stops and receiver Justin Hunter's deflection on a field-goal attempt in the first half.
"It's line up right and tackling, that was our adjustment," Dooley said. "It's line up where you're supposed to line up, not where you want to line up, and when the runner takes off, tackle him."
Can't couch Mo
Dooley said Jason McVeigh, UT's director of medicine and the football program's head trainer, had ruled defensive tackle Maurice Couch out for the Cincinnati game with a knee sprain, but the 6-foot-2, 305-pound junior-college transfer changed Dooley's mind in practice. Couch initially struggled with conditioning due to his asthma when preseason training camp began, but the sophomore has progressed and was active on Saturday.
McVeigh had him out for the game four days," Dooley said. "He goes out to practice, picks up our center and throws him and makes a hit, and I'm like, 'How can he be out for the game?' I didn't tell him McVeigh had him out. He's going to be alright, just give him time."