Garner, Vols readying for ‘Mercedes Benz’ of college football

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee junior defensive tackle Omari Thomas closes in on LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels during last Saturday’s 40-13 win by the Volunteers.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee junior defensive tackle Omari Thomas closes in on LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels during last Saturday’s 40-13 win by the Volunteers.

In the immediate aftermath of Tennessee's 40-13 decimation of LSU last Saturday inside Tiger Stadium, the biggest smile walking off the field may have belonged to Volunteers defensive line coach Rodney Garner.

Garner was Auburn's starting right guard in 1988, when his Tigers lost 7-6 in the memorable "Earthquake Game" in Baton Rouge, and return trips as a Southeastern Conference assistant coach with Auburn, Georgia and Tennessee had yielded just a 2-6 record before Saturday's surprise slaughter.

If only Garner could have savored that moment more, as the league's longest continuous football assistant instantly turned his attention to this week's challenge of facing No. 3 Alabama inside Neyland Stadium. Garner has enjoyed 13 victories over the Crimson Tide during his career, including three straight as a player and three more Iron Bowls within the past decade as Nick Saban walked the opposite sideline.

"It doesn't matter who he loses from a player standpoint or from a coach standpoint," Garner said Tuesday in a news conference. "They're sort of like a Mercedes-Benz plant. Everything that rolls off that assembly line is a high-quality product, so we've got to be high quality just so we can go out there and compete with them.

"We've got to be conscientious of our pad level and our footwork and our eyes and our hat placement."

The defensive interior was an unheralded aspect to Tennessee's roster at the beginning of the season, but it has held its own. Tackles for loss were prevalent throughout last year and have been again, as the Vols racked up nine lost-yardage stops against the Tigers.

Perhaps the most impressive defensive stat in Tennessee's runaway was that the Vols held LSU's running backs to 12 carries for 17 yards.

"We're really just playing vertical and playing hard and owning our gaps," sixth-year senior defensive tackle LaTrell Bumphus said. "We really stress a lot in practice to own our gaps, and we see good running backs in practice every day, so we're well-prepared going into every game."

Tennessee is 11th nationally in run defense, allowing 89.2 yards per game, but Garner is being guarded when it comes to praise.

  photo  Rodney Garner

"We're still a work in progress," Garner said. "Obviously, the young men are buying in, but it's still going to come down to details and doing the little things right. The reasoning behind all the madness and the things that we put them through and the things that we try to stress is for moments like this, because every week it's going to get bigger.

"The fundamentals are going to come into play, and it's going to come down to the team that makes the fewest mistakes."

Omari Thomas has been the most productive member of Tennessee's defensive interior, with the 6-foot-4, 320-pound junior from Memphis having tallied 15 tackles, three pass breakups, two quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Yet the constant critiquing continues, with Garner saying, "He plays too high. If he's going to be a D-lineman in this league, he's got to play like a D-lineman. Don't look like an O-lineman that we've just got playing D-line."

Garner's basic message this week is that all his big guys have to play bigger than ever before.

"Alabama is not going to beat itself," he said. "You have to go out there and strain and play well, and that's the only way to be competitive. It's easier to clean things up after a win, and these guys are seeing that we've got to get better.

"Unfortunately, we don't have a whole lot of time."

Getting stronger

Jabari Small had 22 rushes for 117 yards and two touchdowns at LSU, and that included a fourth quarter in which he gained 55 yards on five carries.

"From last year to this year, that's one thing we talked to Jabari about," Vols running backs coach Jerry Mack said Tuesday. "We wanted to make sure he was taking care of his body to where he could finish these football games. He was also patient running the ball, making sure he would turn some of those plays that normally would go for one yard or zero yards at times to maybe plus-four or plus-five yards.

"That comes from staying on his track and making sure he understands how to stay tight inside the hip of who those pullers were."

Sampson's gaffe

Hendon Hooker took a hard hit to the stomach during Saturday's second quarter, which was the result of a missed block by freshman running back Dylan Sampson. Hooker fumbled after the hit, with Sampson scooping up the ball and rushing for a two-yard gain.

"It was a great learning moment," Mack said. "He made the best of it when he picked up the ball and turned it into plus yardage. For the most part, he just never got his eyes to the opposite side. In a big-time environment at LSU and him being back home, he got his eyes fixated on one defender as opposed to understanding there was another read to that protection.

"He just never got his eyes back over there, and by the time he saw it, it was too late. He was embarrassed, but he was in tune the rest of the game."

Odds and ends

Tennessee leads the nation with 547.8 yards per game, ranks second in scoring with 46.8 points per contest and is 28-for-28 in red-zone opportunities. ... ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper believes that Hooker has the potential of being a second-round pick next spring. ... The Vols are the only FBS program this season with three victories over Associated Press top-25 teams.

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