At season's midway mark Tennessee's defense continues to struggle

Tennessee Athletics photo by Caleb Jones / Tennessee fifth-year senior cornerback Kenneth George Jr. and the rest of the Volunteers secondary had a difficult time keeping up with John Metchie and Alabama's other receivers Saturday during the Crimson Tide's 48-17 victory.

If Tennessee's defense had a midseason report card with coach Jeremy Pruitt performing the critiquing, there would be no shortage of C and D grades.

The Volunteers had some defensive moments during the opening win at South Carolina, when Henry To'o To'o had a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown and Deandre Johnson was the Southeastern Conference's defensive lineman of the week after collecting 2.5 sacks. Tennessee's best overall team performance occurred the following week, when the Vols routed Missouri 35-12, but bright spots became few and far between in the ensuing losses to Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama by the combined score of 126-45.

"We have not played very good in the secondary for five games and really not very good defensively," Pruitt said Saturday night after the 48-17 loss to visiting Alabama. "Deandre Johnson has played pretty good, but then he was out against Georgia (due to a targeting penalty). Henry has been pretty consistent.

"I see a lot of guys improving, so we've got to figure out why we gave up big plays today and how they kept running the counter and we couldn't get it stopped."

Tennessee does not rank in the upper echelon of the SEC in any major defensive statistical category, checking in at eighth in total defense (407.0 yards per game), ninth in pass defense (254.0) and eighth in run defense (153.0). The Vols are 12th in scoring defense, having yielded 33.0 points per game, but Jarrett Guarantano's two interceptions returned for touchdowns against Kentucky and Eric Gray's fumble that was returned for a score against the Crimson Tide count toward that total.

In two other statistical categories of note, Tennessee ranks 10th among SEC teams in third-down defense (allowing a 47.14% conversion rate) and last in time of possession. Vols defenders are on the field for 33 minutes and 39 seconds per game.

"We have to eliminate mistakes in the front and in the second level and in the back end," senior defensive end Matthew Butler said. "We have to play collectively as a unit. We need to string plays together and play with toughness and persistence. We're not there right now."

Said Pruitt: "We've got to get off the field on third down. We've got to be more stout in the run game. I see a lot of guys trying really hard, but we're making mistakes."

Tennessee started this season averaging an interception a game, with To'o To'o notching his scoring return against the Gamecocks and with safety Theo Jackson collecting a fourth-quarter pick against Mizzou. The Vols have not snagged an interception since.

Only Florida, Missouri and Vanderbilt have fewer than Tennessee's two interceptions within the league.

"That is a surprise to me," junior cornerback Alontae Taylor said. "We attack the ball in practice and make a lot of plays in practice. We've just got to capitalize in games when opportunities come our way.

"We have what it takes. We just have to make it happen."

Pruitt has detailed Tennessee's defensive woes down to injured players trying to leave the field instead of staying down when an opposing offense is using tempo. This week's open date should give the defense further opportunity to move on from the abrupt dismissal of defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh following the Kentucky game, and there is plenty of time to dissect the Alabama tape.

The Vols won't face a better offense all season, but Florida and Texas A&M are scoring their share of points, while Auburn and Arkansas have had their moments as well.

"We gave up a lot of explosive plays, and we've always been really good about not doing that," Pruitt said. "We had not given up many this year before today. It's tough to stop those guys when they get the play-action going, but you've got to be able to stop one or the other.

"I'm not saying we would have stopped them if we would have done everything exactly right, but from an execution level, we're not where we need to be."

Hogs at night

Tennessee's game at Arkansas on Nov. 7 will either be televised by ESPN at 7 p.m., or by the SEC Network at 7:30. A final decision should be known Sunday.

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.