KNOXVILLE -- Daniel Hood and Mo Couch each made plays in Tennessee's season-opening win against Austin Peay.
Along with Daniel McCullers, the Volunteers have a trio of senior defensive tackles, and they will need more production like that from the veterans.
"They're critical, and we'll go as well as they go," coach Butch Jones said during his weekly news conference Monday. "I thought they were disruptive in the middle. They made some good plays. I think Mo Couch has to continue to progress with his conditioning levels and be able to give us valuable reps.
"We have some older players in that group that have played a lot of football, and we expect a lot from them and we demand a lot from them as well."
Hood deflected and intercepted a pass in the first quarter and ended another possession with a tackle for loss on a screen pass. Couch, who missed spring practice recovering from shoulder surgery and was slowed by a calf injury during preseason practice, registered one of Tennessee's two sacks in the game.
McCullers, Hood and Couch entered the season with 28 career starts combined, and they hope to add significantly to their career totals of 4.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss.
"Like Coach [Jones] says, we're going to go as far as those guys take us," safety Byron Moore said. "They're all locked in, they're pushing each other and holding each other accountable, so I'm looking forward to seeing how they play this year."
The Vols learned not long after walking off the field after the opener that Western Kentucky had beaten Kentucky 35-26 in Nashville. The Hilltoppers, under former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, piled up 487 yards of offense and built an 18-point lead early in the fourth quarter against the SEC's Wildcats.
"To be honest, I wasn't really that surprised," Hood said. "We've been preparing for them really since the summer because we knew that they had a lot of talent coming. We know they've got a great coaching staff there, and so we knew that they were going to be really talented and be a tough team to beat.
"When we'd seen the score, it was kind of what we expected."
Many players said Monday they've watched video of the game.
"They believe they can play with anyone and everyone in the country," Jones said.
"I think our players understand they're extremely talented and they're going to be a great challenge for us," he later added. "All you have to do is watch a couple clips and they have your attention. They have SEC talent."
Safety Brian Randolph's night against Austin Peay lasted all of 17 snaps, and the Vols sat many of their starters for the entire second half with the game in hand.
A noon kickoff and the four-quarter game the players expect this Saturday will be a better test of Tennessee's conditioning.
"It's definitely going to get tested, but I feel like we're up to the challenge," right tackle Ja'Wuan James said Monday. "We want to play fast, because that'll be to our advantage if we play fast. I feel like that's definitely going to help us.
"I saw Austin Peay's defense getting tired. I watched Western Kentucky/Kentucky, and they were starting to get tired. I feel like we move faster than Kentucky, so if we keep the tempo it'll be at our advantage."
With depth a concern, Jones was less worried about the scoreboard and more interested in allowing some of his younger players and reserves to play the second half, and while he feels his team in is physical shape, he's more interested in how they handle fatigue mentally.
"We didn't play a full game, so that's one of the points of emphasis that we will be making this week," he said. "We had some individuals only play 33 or 34 snaps, and usually there's 70 to 80 snaps in a game. That is an area of concern that we'll demand a lot from them this week in practice."
Marcus Jackson, the sixth man on the Vols' offensive line, oddly didn't play against Austin Peay, which led to some speculation the coaching staff may try to redshirt him in trying to mitigate the line's losses after this season.
Jones, though, said Tennessee wanted to give some other linemen an opportunity to play.
"We will continue to address Marcus' situation as we continue to move forward," he said. "It's nothing that he's done. He's had a great training camp, but I think it was an opportunity for other individuals to see what they can do. We know what we have with Marcus. He's a very, very talented football player."
Jones said Tennessee will know more about the availability of defensive end Jacques Smith (thumb) and linebacker Curt Maggitt (knee) for Saturday as the week progresses.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.