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Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans (4) runs the ball against Tennessee defenders Shy Tuttle (2) and Kendal Vickers (39) during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Bristol Motor Speedway on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, in Bristol, Tenn. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

KNOXVILLE — Bob Shoop certainly had higher hopes for his first season as Tennessee's defensive coordinator.

When the Volunteers plucked him from Penn State in January, he said he believed they had the pieces in place to put a championship defense on the field this season.

The most important pieces have spent more time on the sideline in street clothes than on the field in uniform, however, and 18th-ranked Tennessee continues to tout its next-man-up mentality as it enters Saturday night's game at South Carolina ranked 11th in the SEC and 82nd nationally in total defense.

"There's been a lot of that going on this year, but the guys that are coming up, they have the confidence to step up and play the role that they're playing," defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. "I don't think we've got any guys on this team that lack confidence and what their ability is. It is next man up, and I don't think it'll be a problem.

"They're confident and we're confident in them to get the job done."

Though the Vols welcome the return of linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. against the Gamecocks, they are dealing with more absences in the defensive line, where the depth at tackle has been sapped by injuries to Alexis Johnson and Kahlil McKenzie, who's out for the rest of the season with a torn pectoral tendon, and the dismissal of Danny O'Brien.

There's concern, too, about the health of starting safety Micah Abernathy after he hurt his hamstring against Alabama, and cornerback Malik Foreman and linebacker Cortez McDowell are working their way back from injuries, too.

Understandably Shoop has grown a little tired of all the talk of injuries, and he doesn't want to use them as an excuse.

"I've been coaching for a long time," he said. "I feel bad for the kids when they get hurt. Kahlil's a guy who bled Tennessee football for a long, long time, so for him to be out is disappointing for him. It's a next-man-up mentality. Nobody's going to cry for us. Nobody's going to feel bad for us, I promise you that.

"When Kirkland went out, (Colton) Jumper stepped up. When (Cameron) Sutton went out, Baylen Buchanan or the next guy stepped up. Guys step up. That's the nature of the game. No individual's bigger than the team, or you wouldn't have much of a team."

Tennessee now doesn't have much in the way of depth at defensive tackle.

Vickers and Shy Tuttle have been in the rotation all season, but beyond sophomore Quay Picou, who had played sparingly before going most of the way against Alabama, Tennessee may have to slide defensive ends such as Kyle Phillips inside or perhaps play more three-man fronts to compensate for the missing players.

"It's just a different mentality to play inside," Vickers said. "You've just got to get low. You get double-teamed a lot. You've got to make sure your technique is right. You've got to make sure you're on your assignments, because if the three-technique gets blown up, then that's a 5-, 6-, 7-yard gain and you get exposed on national television. You don't want that to happen.

"It's just a different mentality to play inside. I think it's one of the toughest positions you've got to play. Not everybody can play it, and I don't expect everybody to be able to play it. It's just a different position."

It's just another position at which the Vols need a reserve to step up in wake of an injury.

"We made some moves in the second half of the Alabama game," Shoop said. "Quay Picou and Kyle Phillips were playing D-tackle the whole game, and they had minimal reps of preparation, I promise you, heading into the Alabama game. We've got Kyle, we've got Quay, we've got Shy and obviously Vickers. Those guys are warriors. They're going to battle and they're going to play well.

"Like everybody else, we'd gone seven straight weeks. We were kind of a battered team. The open week was refreshing for us. We practiced well. You see how it goes in this league. It's a man's league, man. To go seven straight weeks like that with some of the injuries we had was very, very challenging for us, so it was a welcome break and it's a clean slate."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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