KNOXVILLE -- It could be a botched assignment, an incorrect alignment or just a missed tackle.
They may be simple mistakes, but the consequences can be, as Tennessee defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox calls them, catastrophic, which is how UT terms plays of 25 yards or more. The Volunteers' defense has given up too many of those big-yardage plays, and the culprit is often a small mistake that results in a big problem.
"We're doing some good things, but we're giving up just these enormous plays that are killing us," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "It's either been a guy just beating us one-on-one or a missed assignment and nobody able to correct it or just not good tackling once the ball breaks in the perimeter game. That's something we've got to eliminate. Our goal in every game is zero plays over 25 yards."
The Vols have allowed three of them in each of their first three games. Not surprisingly, UT's opponents have six touchdowns and two field goals on those nine drives. UT has held opponents to three yards per play on 208 of its 217 defensive snaps, but the average for the other nine plays is 46 yards.
All three of UT's opponents this season have up-tempo offense that, combined with UT's youth, can force some of those pre-snap failures. Freshmen linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt start in UT's base defense, but Montana and Cincinnati's spread offenses forced the Vols into their five-defensive back nickel package for the majority of the first two games. Most of the plays that have victimized UT were runs or short passes.
"The reality is there is going to be some balls that get to the back seven," Dooley said. "On several of those, we're out of position big time because of a mental error, alignment issue and then nobody's able to make up for it. You're going to have some breakdowns mentally but you've got to be able to run fast, close to the football and tackle. We've got to improve in that on the back end."
One key to improving the back end simply might be settling on four or five guys in the secondary to handle most of the snaps. The Vols have used four different cornerbacks and three different safeties regularly. The added depth from a season ago has been an asset for secondary coach Terry Joseph, but UT has been unable to identify five clear-cut defensive backs.
"I want to play the guy who's playing good," Joseph said. "I think we've got a lot of guys who are capable of holding up against the competition we go against. I think the more guys we can get prepared to battle, the better we'll off to be. I don't think we're close to being set, but I think everybody understands that there's some opportunity here."
Safeties Brent Brewer and Prentiss Waggner have been mainstays for the Vols, though Wilcox said Brewer must "quit pressing." Senior Art Evans started at cornerback ahead of freshman Justin Coleman against Florida, but those two are splitting time with Marsalis Teague and Izauea Lanier.
If Brian Randolph continues progressing at safety, Waggner could slide back to cornerback where he likely would have started the season had Janzen Jackson not been dismissed a week before the opener.
"It gives you flexibility and that's what you're always looking for," Dooley said. "With Prentiss, he brings some cover skills and instinctive ability that if you can put him in places where he can make an impact better, it's good. Prentiss is not a physical safety, we all know that. When you [play] against those big, heavy running backs and they break out of the front seven, somebody has got to get them on the ground.
"We hope Brian can develop into that role."
The Vols like Randolph's abilities and intelligence and Lanier's size at 195 pounds. Coleman's competitiveness earned him two starts, Teague is a steady option and Evans provides an experienced option.
"The honest truth is I feel a lot better about everybody now than I did leaving training camp," Joseph said. "I think the shock of [Jackson] not being there has worn off, and we realize what we've got to do and I think everybody has stepped up and shown what they need to do. Now as coaches, I think I have a better grip on how they can help us."
The Vols have two weeks before the Oct. 1 home game with Buffalo to try to figure out their secondary and limit the pre-snap mistakes and missed assignments that resulted in Cincinnati tailback Isaiah Pead's 65-yard touchdown and Florida tailback Chris Rainey's 83-yard catch-and-run score.
"No matter how hard you try, you can never focus on the little things enough," Teague said. "You think you are, but at the same time, you'll go back and look at the film and see there was a little thing here that may lead to this. It's always the little things."
Perhaps fixing the little things can end stop the big plays from happening.