Vols picked their defensive poison in victory over Kentucky

Kentucky Athletics photo by Caleb Bowlin / Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary threw for 372 yards during Saturday night's 33-27 loss to visiting Tennessee.
Kentucky Athletics photo by Caleb Bowlin / Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary threw for 372 yards during Saturday night's 33-27 loss to visiting Tennessee.

How did Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary suddenly look like a Heisman Trophy candidate during Saturday night's 33-27 loss to visiting Tennessee?

It was a matter of the Volunteers picking their poison.

"We went into that game very deliberate," Tennessee third-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks said Tuesday in a news conference. "We knew what they wanted to be. I think they were leading the SEC in yards per carry, and we didn't want to allow those guys to do that, so we made a conscious effort to take the run away.

"You've got to give those guys a lot of credit. Their quarterback is a veteran player and made a ton of great throws, but every game is different. Whatever the game plan needs to be to win the game is always what the game plan is, and we felt like we needed to take away the run."

The No. 19 Vols improved to 6-2 overall and 3-2 in league play with their win in Lexington and are stepping out of conference this weekend to host Connecticut for Homecoming.

Leary, a heralded graduate transfer from North Carolina State, had averaged just 196.7 passing yards per game through Kentucky's 5-2 start, while running back Ray Davis had been the star of the show. The transfer from Vanderbilt was averaging a league-leading 111.6 rushing yards a contest before being held to 16 carries for 42 yards against the Vols.

Tennessee is ranked 20th nationally in run defense, allowing 105.13 yards per game, with Florida's Trevor Etienne (23 carries for 172 yards) and Alabama's Jase McClellan (27 for 115) being the most productive opposing ball carriers. It's not by coincidence that Tennessee lost to the Gators and Crimson Tide.

"Stopping the run is a mentality," Banks said. "It's a physicality and guys fitting their gaps, and it's everybody doing their part. There are a lot of things that can happen when you throw the ball, whether it's a sack, incomplete or you pick it off, but if they're running the ball and we can't stop the run, that's always a formula for disaster.

"Typically, when we've been good against the run, we've come out on top, and that's just something we believe in."

This year's average against the run for the Vols is slightly better than the 115.77-yard clip last season, when they went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl.

Tennessee played its first game this past Saturday without senior starting cornerback Kamal Hadden — "Obviously Kamal was a big part of what we did," Banks said — who was lost for the season at Alabama with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Leary lit the Vols up for 372 yards on 28-of-39 passing after Kentucky's coaches adjusted to Tennessee's ability to stop Davis, so Vols defensive backs are eager to bounce back against the Huskies.

"Every game is not going to be perfect," fifth-year senior safety Wesley Walker said. "Their quarterback had a good day, and I feel like they had some good play calls as well. Not every time is going to be a shut-down defense. Sometimes you're going to be in a battle, so it's about making the right plays at the right time and getting off the field at the right time.

"It was an ugly win. We got it done, but we're going to learn from it for sure."

Increased attention

Tennessee's ability to rack up quarterback pressures, sacks and tackles for loss was reduced greatly at Kentucky, which Banks said was due to multiple reasons.

"It's a sign of respect when they're chipping you on the edges and getting in seven-man protections and things of that nature," Banks said. "When you work as hard as these guys have worked and you're having the success these guys are having, there are going to be some challenging games with their protections.

"We're going to continue to take away the things we feel they do best, and then we'll obviously make adjustments during the course of the game."

Banks added that he noticed more attention being placed on his edge rushers beginning with the Texas A&M game.

Thornton shines

Vols junior receiver Dont'e Thornton, the transfer from Oregon, led the Vols on Saturday with 63 yards on three catches.

It was the first time the 6-foot-5, 214-pounder from Baltimore led Tennessee this season.

"Those were three big catches by him," Vols head coach Josh Heupel said. "He's been banged up throughout his journey this year, including the spring and in training camp and parts of this season. With where we are collectively as a group, we felt like it was best to slide him out in this game. We had Chas (Nimrod) in the slot some, and those guys will ping-pong back and forth as we go here."

Said offensive coordinator Joey Halzle: "You could just see he was more comfortable outside. He had his best game of the season by far."

Odds and ends

Tennessee announced Tuesday that Saturday's game, which has a noon start and will be televised by the SEC Network, is sold out. ... This will be Tennessee's 99th Homecoming, with the Vols owning a 75-20-3 record. ... The last two Homecoming losses for Tennessee occurred in 2013 to Auburn, which played for that season's national championship, and in 2021 to Georgia, which won that season's national title.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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