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Butch Jones
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Tennessee defensive back Cameron Sutton celebrates stopping Utah State on 3rd down in this file photo.

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee is playing a high-stakes football game Saturday night.

The Volunteers need to ensure their focus is on that rather than what's bumped it to the backdrop.

Amid the accusations of rape and sexual assault and ensuing suspensions of All-SEC linebacker and team captain A.J. Johnson and cornerback Michael Williams, Tennessee is trying to maintain its focus on a huge game against 19th-ranked Missouri on Saturday night.

"We don't let things get to us," cornerback Cam Sutton said after Tuesday's practice. "Through all the adversity that we go through, it bonds us, it brings us together. We're a tight-knit family."

What will happen with Johnson and Williams is unclear, but it's highly unlikely that either will play when Tennessee, which is a win away from bowl eligibility, hosts the Tigers, who are two wins from returning to the SEC championship game. It's possible that neither will play again this season.

For Tennessee's coaches and players, the immediate focus, particularly defensively, is how to cope with the absences, especially with Johnson's. The 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior was the Vols' heart and soul. Well-liked by coaches, teammates and fans, Johnson was set to play the final home game of an impressive career.

"Obviously it's very difficult," Vols coach Butch Jones said, "but it's the situation there we're in, and that's about all that I can comment right now as it's going through the legal process."

Tennessee canceled its player availability Monday, so Tuesday was the first time any players had spoken publicly about the off-field situation since it first broke Monday.

"That's the message this week, is we've got to unite together and stay focused," senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams said. "We came out this week (with) great focus and great attitude. We had a great practice today, and we're just moving forward and playing football."

The loss of Michael Williams is less significant given the progress of freshman Emmanuel Moseley. He drew his first start against Kentucky last week and broke up two passes, including one in the end zone. Jones said Moseley is currently "playing with a lot of confidence."

How the Vols will replace Johnson, a team captain who energized his teammates whether he was at practice, on the field or on the sideline, is much murkier.

"He's our leader," Sutton said. "It's another opportunity for guys to step in and be leaders and get guys motivated, get guys energized and ready to practice and let it lead over to the games."

More importantly, the Vols will have to replace their best player.

"You just don't replace his production," Jones said. "Everyone around our football team has to step up, do their job, not do any more than what's required of them. They'll step up."

Johnson and sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin were in for nearly all the plays in Tennessee's base defense, but the Vols will have to tap into what linebacker depth they do have. Jones said the Vols will rely more on Reeves-Maybin in terms of handling the communication with the front seven.

With junior college transfer Chris Weatherd likely to remain in his specific role in Tennessee's 3-3-5 package, the Vols, Jones said, will "rely heavily" on freshman Jakob Johnson, freshman Cortez McDowell and redshirt sophomore Kenny Bynum. The Vols feel good about the future of Jakob Johnson, a 6-4, 240-pound January arrival who played one year of high school football after moving to Florida from Germany, and that future may become the present Saturday night.

"We knew that it would be a developmental process, but what we saw on video is basically what we see every day," Jones said. "He's very, very athletic, very tough, very physical. He's working on his instincts, working on his overall knowledge of the game and all the checks."

McDowell, a converted safety, has played well on special teams, but he's more of an outside linebacker, while Bynum may give Tennessee a more stable option than the inexperienced Jakob Johnson.

"I'm sure the coaches will get who they need to get in there," Jordan Williams said, "but the way our defense is set up, it's just the next man up."

Such adversity can galvanize teams into rallying amid off-field trouble, but Tennessee could find it difficult replacing a player of Johnson's talent and value.

Regardless, the week will test the Vols' collective focus.

"(It's) definitely not a distraction," Sutton said. "We're here to play football. We don't let that stuff get to us. That's stuff we don't concern ourselves with. We just come out, prepare, get ready throughout the course of the week and let it lead into Saturdays."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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