KNOXVILLE - For a third consecutive game, Tennessee's defensive line is facing an athletic quarterback and an up-tempo offense.
That's where the similarities come to a screeching halt, though.
The Volunteers and their undersized new-look defensive front will face a giant challenge -- literally -- on Saturday night against fourth-ranked Oklahoma, who boast one of the biggest and most veteran offensive lines in the country.
"These are big son-of-a-guns," Tennessee defensive line coach Steve Stripling said following Wednesday's practice.
"Obviously we've got to combat that with great technique, great hand violence, effort and utilize our athleticism and make plays."
The Vols racked up 15 tackles for loss and four sacks against the spread offenses of Utah State and Arkansas State in the first two games of the season, and neither the Aggies nor the Red Wolves cracked the 150-yard mark running the ball.
The Sooners will be a very, very different animal.
"Obviously we're a young D-line, and we don't have the size we always have, but we're excited," Vols defensive tackle Danny O'Brien said. "We've been putting in extra work that I don't think anybody in the country's been working as hard as us. We're getting extra time in the film room, staying after practice for 20 minutes just to work on hands and stuff like that.
"We're more worried about how we're doing to prepare for them and not worried about what they're going to do, so our game plan is to go out there and play our game."
Oklahoma's offensive line will throw 1,629 pounds of force at Tennessee, whose heaviest healthy defensive lineman is the 288-pound Owen Williams. Based on the average weight of the starters on each team's depth chart, the Sooners outweigh Tennessee by more than 50 pounds. They start three fifth-year seniors, a fourth-year junior and a true junior, too.
Tackles Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams weigh 336 and 329, respectively, and starting guards Adam Shead and Tyler Evans each tip the scale at 339.
"We know that we have some challenges there," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "We're going to have to play a tough, physical ballgame up front and play with great pad level and leverage.
"We've got some challenges, and it's gonna be fun. It's gonna be exciting. It's gonna be great to see our kids go out there and compete in a great venue and environment in Oklahoma. We're going to have to make some adjustments during the game as always and keep coaching and keep fighting and playing as players."
So far this season, Tennessee primarily relied on a defensive-line rotation of six players: tackles O'Brien, Owen Williams and Jordan Williams and ends Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen and Curt Maggitt. Reserves like LaTroy Lewis and freshmen Dimarya Mixon and Dewayne Hendrix have only seen snaps well into the second half of the first two games.
"We're playing hard," O'Brien said. "Everybody's running to the ball. Everybody's getting after it. Everybody's got that momentum and intensity to get to the ball, and everybody wants to make plays."
Said Jancek: "They've got great grit."
Oklahoma's passing game, led by quarterback Trevor Knight and big-play receiver Sterling Shepard, are more than capable, but the Sooners may choose to pound the ball straight at Tennessee.
The Sooners rotate a trio of tailbacks in Keith Ford, Alex Ross and Samaje Perine, three former four-star recruits, behind that massive offensive line.
When Tennessee went out to second-ranked Oregon in the third week of last season, the Vols' lack of defensive speed was exposed as the Ducks rolled up 59 points and 687 yards with a handful of big plays.
"We've gotten more speed. Obviously, in doing that, we've gotten a lot smaller up front," Jancek said. "That's the balancing act, and there's nothing you can really do about that at this time. We're building a program, we're building an identity on defense, we're building a culture -- it takes time. We've got good young players in our program.
"When you look at Oklahoma, they're redshirted and they're juniors and they're seniors. They're 22-year-old men, and they've been in that program. That's what I want here. I want to be going to war with some redshirt seniors and juniors on the line of scrimmage, big guys that have been in battles. We're not there yet, but we're working toward that."
Come Saturday night, Tennessee will see how far they must go in that regard.
"I think it's a test for us. It really is," Stripling said. "Our philosophy is to be athletic and mobile and make plays, and obviously this line is not gonna be any different from what we see in the SEC. This will be our first challenge."
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