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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Redshirt junior linebacker Jeremy Banks has racked up nine of Tennessee's 70 tackles for loss this season. The Volunteers average 8.75 TFLs per game, which leads the nation.

That the Tennessee Volunteers lead the nation in offensive plays per minute shouldn't be overly shocking given Josh Heupel's track record.

Ruling the national roost in tackles for loss? Who saw that coming?

"I think tackles for loss is a big part of this defense," Vols sophomore defensive tackle Omari Thomas said Tuesday in a news conference. "If we're tackling players on their side of the line of scrimmage, it just shows that we're creating havoc and that we're playing on their side of the ball. That's what our coaches want us to do, and I think it's a big accomplishment."

According to CFBStats.com, Tennessee has amassed 70 tackles for loss during its 4-4 season that will continue Saturday night at No. 18 Kentucky. That total ranks second to Liberty among programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but the Flames have tallied their 74 TFLs in nine contests.

So Tennessee's average of 8.75 TFLs per game under first-year defensive coordinator Tim Banks ranks second to no one.

"Obviously you try to play to your strengths of your players," Banks said. "We try to put our guys in the best possible positions to be successful, but it's more of a credit to them and how hard they're playing and giving the scheme a chance. Really, it's all about the kids and how hard they're playing.

"Those are the guys who are out there making the plays."

Tennessee's 70 TFLs are spread out among a whopping 26 players, with redshirt junior inside linebacker Jeremy Banks leading the way with 9.0, and with two fifth-year seniors, defensive tackle Matthew Butler and safety Theo Jackson, next in line with 6.5 apiece. Junior outside linebacker Byron Young, the transfer from Georgia Military College, and fifth-year senior defensive end Ja'Quain Blakely have 5.0 each.

Could Banks have seen this coming?

"In everything we want to do, we want to be aggressive," he said, "and that's whether we're in our four-down (linemen) or three-down, depending on what coverage we are in. I didn't know. Every year is a new year."

Of course, Tennessee is far from the national summit in other defensive categories. The Vols rank 73rd among the 130 FBS programs in total defense, allowing 393.8 yards per game, and third downs have been a continuing killer.

Tennessee is just 117th nationally on third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert at a 45.7% clip.

"It's been frustrating," senior cornerback Alontae Taylor said. "You're out there, and it's third-and-12, and you're like, 'OK, just get them on the ground and you can get off the field and give the offense the ball.' We focused on that a lot during the bye week. We're struggling, but we'll get to the other side of that."

Said Banks: "We've got to do a better job of understanding how many yards they need and don't let them get it. It's as simple as that, and we're working to try and get that done."

 

Faking injuries

As up-tempo offenses go deeper into the season against fatigued defenses, the amount of defenders falling to the ground in an effort to slow play has increased. It's a topic Tennessee first-year offensive coordinator Alex Golesh was happy to discuss Tuesday.

"Obviously it's a national headline at this point, but it's part of the game, and we've got to continue to come up with creative ways to get the illusion of tempo started again," Golesh said. "All we can control is executing on that first play back, because when we've been able to pick up that first first down, we've been pretty successful, and at that point it's a reset.

"It halts your play, but I'm upstairs with the headset, and it's the standpoint of, 'Awesome. We've got them right where we want them. They're obviously nervous, and they're obviously on their heels.' It is what it is."

 

Tracking Robinson

Kentucky doesn't exactly present the most balanced passing attack in SEC history.

Junior receiver Wan'Dale Robinson has 58 receptions, which is five more than the next five Wildcats pass-catchers — receivers Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps, tight end Justin Rigg, receiver Izayah Cummings and tight end Brenden Bates — combined. Robinson, the 5-foot-10, 183 pounder who transferred after two seasons at Nebraska, has amassed 645 yards and five touchdowns.

"They're going to target him and try to target him because of his skill set," Heupel said. "He's extremely fast, and he's reliable as far as catching the football. He creates a bunch of explosive plays, and he's able to do that with short and intermediate passes. He can hurt you in the screen game and with some isolations out on the outside.

"He's somebody we've got to know where he's at the entire game."

 

Odds and ends

Redshirt sophomore tackle Dayne Davis has been nominated for the Burlsworth Trophy, which recognizes college football's top player who started out as a walk-on. ... Golesh said the Vols are as healthy at running back and on the line as they've been in weeks. ... Tennessee is 81-26-9 all-time against Kentucky, posting a 43-11-6 advantage in Knoxville and a 38-15-3 edge in Lexington.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

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