Tennessee Vols' defense is working for redemption

Curt Maggitt (56) plays defense for the Volunteers. The Tennessee Volunteers hosted the Bowling Green Falcons at Nissan Stadium in Nashville Sept. 5, 2015.

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee's showdown with Oklahoma on Saturday will be the first nonconference matchup of two ranked teams at Neyland Stadium since 2006.

It'll also be a shot at redemption for the Volunteers' defense.

None of the players and coaches were pleased with giving up 30 points and 557 yards to Bowling Green in last week's opener, and though much of the concern has centered on a secondary that let the Falcons roll up big play after big play, there were issues at each level of Tennessee's defense.

Vols glance

* No. 23 Tennessee (1-0) vs. No. 19 Oklahoma (1-0) at Neyland Stadium * Saturday, 6 p.m. * ESPN and 106.5 FM

photo Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek encourages a struggling Tennessee defense. The Tennessee Volunteers hosted the Bowling Green Falcons at Nissan Stadium in Nashville September 5, 2015.
photo Defensive line coach Steve Stripling and defensive grad assistant Chase Gibson watch the Orange and White game at Neyland Stadium in this 2013 file photo.

"That's the reason we've been getting after it the past couple of days," defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt said after Tuesday's practice. "We know how we can play, and we didn't play to that standard. This upcoming week is going to be a great opportunity for us (in the) home opener to challenge ourselves.

"The performance we put up last week wasn't nearly good enough, so it's a challenge for us this weekend."

The problems last Saturday stemmed from a variety of sources, as Tennessee allowed the Falcons to pile up four running plays of 10-plus yards and a dozen completions of 15 or more yards.

Those 16 plays accounted for 426 of Bowling Green's output.

"We didn't play well as a defense," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "The kids know it. It was a disappointing performance, and we have to get better in a hurry.

"They're working. They saw the film. They know what they need to do. We pointed it out, believe me."

Bowling Green exploited some favorable one-on-one matchups, and the Vols simply failed to make a play on a couple of deep passes in man coverage. The Vols missed some open-field tackles that turned short passes into longer gains. On other plays, Tennessee players bit on a play-fake, succumbed to a misread or failed to communicate the coverage properly.

Tennessee's secondary looked shaky when it tried to play primarily man coverage, and Jancek said the Vols played more zone as the game progressed into the second half.

"I don't think they have any issues of confidence," he said. "Show me a corner that's never been beat, right? It happens. We have confidence in them as their coaches, and I think it begins with that.

"We know that we can make some adjustments to give those guys some relief and mix things up more than what I did in that ballgame. We'll just continue to work and get better."

The play of the defensive line and linebackers didn't help the secondary.

Asked if he liked anything about how his group played, Tennessee defensive line coach Steve Stripling was blunt.

"No, not happy with anything," he said. "And the D-line's not happy with anything. It was a great experience in that we didn't do anything well, and it was a reality check. It's been a very professional approach this week."

"All the qualities that we stand for, which is play hard - we didn't play hard. All the qualities we talk about, being accountable - we weren't accountable. We just did not perform to our standards, and they saw it on the film, and they knew it Saturday night.

"When I was on the bus, a bunch of were coming up to me. They knew afterwards. If you want to ask me why, I'm not sure why. I just like the big win and the chance to get better."

Jancek said Colton Jumper and Darrin Kirkland, the two middle linebackers, looked "raw" in their first taste of significant action, set the defensive front wrong "a few times" and "have a lot to learn" moving forward.

"All experience is good experience for me," said the freshman Kirkland. "Being a young guy and playing in college football, there were a lot of mistakes that you make early, and hopefully I can just grow from it in the future."

The Vols have been studying video from first-year Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's tenure at East Carolina.

The Pirates finished in the top 20 in passing offense in four of his five years there, and Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield threw for nearly 400 yards in his first start for the Sooners in their opening win against Akron, but Oklahoma, which has four new starters on the offensive line, boasts a potent running back trio of Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Alex Ross.

"I expect them to be very similar," Jancek said. "Obviously he's got some different personnel. He's got a couple of big backs there that he certainly didn't have when he was at East Carolina. I expect them to be fairly similar to what they did there, and it'll always be a game-time adjustment based on what formations and sets they get into."

The Vols know they'll have to be better to snatch a big-time early-season win.

"The defense," safety Todd Kelly Jr. said, "is definitely going to have to bring it, for sure."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.