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Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee defensive line coach Rodney Garner said Tuesday that he has been proud of the effort displayed by his players and wishes they could have experienced more success to this point. The Volunteers and South Alabama meet Saturday in a matchup of 5-5 teams.

As a Southeastern Conference assistant football coach, Rodney Garner has made 26 consecutive appearances in bowl games.

Should Tennessee defeat South Alabama this Saturday night in Neyland Stadium, that would make it 27 straight.

The longtime defensive line coach has experienced everything from the BCS national championship contest after the 2013 season, when Auburn came within seconds of knocking off Florida State for the crown, to the Liberty Bowl three years earlier with a 6-6 Georgia, which wound up falling to Central Florida. There have been Sugar Bowl trips with Georgia and Auburn along the way as well as an Orange Bowl journey in his first go-around with the Volunteers during the 1997 season, and a postseason appearance this year would be much more about his players than anything personal.

"Obviously I'm disappointed that we haven't had the success that we all wanted," Garner said Tuesday in a news conference, "but when I watch the film on Saturday nights after the games, I'm amazed at how hard they're playing. We've got to play smarter, but they're straining for one another and competing for one another."

Garner inherited an experienced nucleus with seniors Ja'Quain Blakely, La'Trell Bumphus, Matthew Butler and Aubrey Solomon, promising sophomores Elijah Simmons and Omari Thomas, and also obtained two additions via the NCAA transfer portal — Da'Jon Terry from Kansas and Caleb Tremblay from Southern California.

The unquestioned leader of the group is Butler, a fifth-year senior who used the NCAA's extra season of eligibility due to the coronavirus and has made a mark on his fifth position coach.

"Matthew is a unique individual," Garner said. "Obviously he's very, very intellectual. He's probably the smartest guy I've ever coached by far. He's a great young man, and he's a man of character. He works really hard, and I've really enjoyed watching Matt improve his game and play at a higher level.

"He's having some success and doing some good things. The whole room is an enjoyable room."

Butler, a 6-foot-4, 295-pounder from Raleigh, North Carolina, leads the defensive linemen with 35 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries, four sacks and a forced fumble. Blakely, a 6-2, 270-pounder from Moultrie, Georgia, is next with 24 tackles, five tackles for loss, three hurries and 1.5 sacks.

"He's getting the most out of his skill set that he can," Garner said of Blakely. "I actually think he's playing above his skill set."

 

Relationships built

Garner has built countless life-long friendships with former players, pointing out Tuesday that he met up with former Georgia defensive linemen Charles Grant and Johnathan Sullivan this past weekend.

He is already laying that groundwork with his current Tennessee players.

"The kids don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," Garner said.

 

Team recognition

Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks spoke to the media Tuesday for the first time since Monday's announcement that he is among 58 nominees for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant.

"It starts with the kids," Banks said. "It's obviously a tremendous honor, but at the end of the day, it's because of the way these kids have been performing and how hard they're working and how resilient they've been despite some of the outcomes."

Banks added that being "assignment sound" has been the most pleasing aspect to this point of the season. When asked the area that still needs the most improvement, he responded, "You always want to tackle better, especially in space. It's a space league, and it's a space time that we're in."

 

A sixth season?

Vols fifth-year senior tight end Princeton Fant would seemingly be the perfect candidate for the NCAA's extra season. The 6-2, 240-pounder from Nashville redshirted in 2017 and only played in two games in 2018.

Fant entered this season with 20 career appearances and three starts.

"It's definitely something that I am considering," Fant said Tuesday. "Just to give myself more of a chance to come back and compete with the team."

Fant has played in all 10 games this season, amassing nine receptions for 86 yards.

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

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