Gearing up for Gurley: UT Vols eager to face 'the best'

photo Georgia running back Todd Gurley (3) rushes for a first down against Troy Saturday in Athens, Ga.
photo Defensive coordinator John Jancek, right, listens to football coach Butch Jones' spring practice plans during a news conference at the University of Tennessee.

KNOXVILLE -- Asked for a comparison for Georgia's all-star tailback Todd Gurley, Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek came up with one name.

It came from his personal experience, too.

In his first season as Georgia's linebackers coach in 2005, the Bulldogs had to survive when freshman tailback Darren McFadden nearly led the Razorbacks, who were just 4-7 that season, to an upset of the eventual SEC champion Bulldogs.

On that October afternoon in Athens, McFadden ran 31 times for 190 yards and two touchdowns and went on to run for 4,590 yards and 41 touchdowns in his three-year career in Fayetteville before jumping to the NFL as a first-round pick.

Nearly a decade later, Jancek's Volunteers hope to keep Gurley from going off in a similar fashion.

"As a competitor, you always want to play against the best," Jancek said after Wednesday's practice. "He's a big-time back, and we know if we can go out there and do some good things against him, we can sure just about do it against everybody.

"It's not just him; it's the trio of backs. They bring in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Those players are great players in their own right, so we've got a great challenge on Saturday.

"We know it, and we're excited to meet that challenge and do the best we can."

Tennessee dodged Gurley when the Bulldogs won in overtime in Knoxville last season. The 6-foot-1, 226-pound Heisman Trophy candidate suffered an ankle injury the prior week in Georgia's big win against LSU.

There will be no such fortune for the Vols this season, but many players are looking forward to facing Gurley.

"I look forward to playing every opponent, but I know he's one of the top running backs," said A.J. Johnson, Tennessee's All-SEC linebacker. "I always like playing the best, so I'm glad he's back.

"I don't want to put nobody on a pedestal, but they've got good backs. That's all you can really say. We play against good backs all the time, so we've just got to do our job. It ain't about what they do, it's about how we perform on defense."

Said linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt: "We're going to play our defense. We're going to swarm to the ball -- ball disruptions. He's gonna feel us."

photo Tennessee's A.J. Johnson

Gurley, who ran for 130 yards and three touchdowns against the Vols as a freshman in 2012, will be fresh for Tennessee after a six-carry workload in the Bulldogs' demolition of Troy last week. The junior ran for 198 yards and three touchdowns against Clemson in the season opener and followed that up with a 131-yard performance against South Carolina.

He's averaging a gaudy 9.8 yards per carry this season.

"They toss the ball out there, and if it's not properly fitted, he can really gash you," Vols defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "I think it's really important our defense is sound this week, that we know how we're fitting plays. Like in the Clemson game, Clemson misfits a couple of plays and they paid for it.

"It's really important that we fit it up first, then tackle second."

Tennessee coach Butch Jones has raved about Georgia's "stable" of running backs all week, and he even called them "the greatest running back corps in the country" in trying to fire up Vols tailback Marlin Lane during Wednesday's practice.

Michel ran for 155 yards and scored three times against Troy and caught a touchdown pass against South Carolina, and Chubb had an impressive long touchdown run against Clemson.

"They're very strong runners, they're very elusive, they break a lot of tackles and they just look like they love football," Vols safety Brian Randolph said of the two freshmen. "They're very hard runners. They seem nasty on the field."

Jancek noted Georgia's offensive line's role in a rushing attack that's averaged 304 yards per game, and facing a power team like the Bulldogs will be an adjustment for the Vols, who see mostly spread looks from their own offense and two of their first three opponents.

"We don't get to see that a lot even in spring practice," the coordinator said. "We don't get to see that a lot in fall camp. It is foreign, and that's been a challenge for us to try and make sure that we cover all of our bases when it comes to the two-back offenses and the problem they can create with that two-back system."

Gurley presents enough problems himself, regardless of the scheme or system.

"You've just got to give him credit," Randolph said. "He's a great athlete. We've just got to make sure we focus on wrapping him up and getting everybody to the ball.

"It's always good playing great competition. It's going to be a challenge this week, and I'm looking forward to it."

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