KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee defense knows it will have its hands full this weekend with a high-octane Troy offense coming to town averaging 459.6 yards of total offense per game entering Saturday’s Homecoming showdown.
Despite the adversity the Vols have faced on defense this season, they are excited about the challenge and continue to put their nose to the grind stone in search for solutions and more consistent play.
“The kids came out this week and are still getting better,” UT defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said. “We are trying to get better, trying to do the fundamentals right. They executed pretty dang well out in practice today. It’s still about putting yourself in position, making a play, bringing your feet with you and they have been working hard.”
For the Trojans, their offensive success comes from their ability to move the ball down the field in a variety of different ways.
“In Troy I see a team that comes out and is very multiple, they are delivering the ball to all four wide receivers,” Sunseri said. “They will go to empty, they will go into a two-back set, they will run the option and they have two different style quarterbacks.
“They have a quarterback who sits back there and slings it, number six [Corey Robinson], and then they bring an athletic guy in there, number seven [Deon Anthony], who does a great job of running a little bit of a read zone and can beat you with his feet. You have to be really careful with him back there because he will pull the ball down and take off.”
In its preparations to slow down the fast-paced Troy offense this week, the Big Orange has focused on finding ways to minimize the big plays that have plagued it through the first eight games of the season.
“We are giving up too many dang explosives and when you give up explosives, it is costing you,” Sunseri said. “We are going out in practice and making sure that we aren’t giving up any explosives in practice, keeping them short, keeping them to a minimum and that is going to help them on Saturday.
“I think that they are going to go work, they are going to go practice and they are going to do what they have to do. It has been a great week of practice. They are working their butts off and we are coaching our butts off and we just have to keep on going.”
BIG PLAYS FROM UNLIKELY SOURCES
In putting up 35 points on a South Carolina defense that had allowed just over 16 per game going into last Saturday’s game in Columbia, the Tennessee offense saw some unlikely sources step up and make big plays.
Senior wide receiver Zach Rogers led the team with 107 receiving yards and three touchdowns, sophomore Vincent Dallas recorded his first career touchdown on a 61-yard reception, the third longest of the season, and freshman Pig Howard threw a touchdown to redshirt senior tight end Mychal Rivera out of the wildcat, the first TD toss by a non-quarterback since 2007.
Also stepping up for the Vols was Alex Bullard who returned to the starting line up as an offensive lineman, filling in nicely for Zach Fulton who was out with an ankle and knee injury.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was pleased with how his “non-starters” played against a tough SEC defense.
“We had several players that wouldn’t be called ‘starters’ step in and make plays,” Chaney said. “Alex Bullard stepped in and played a fine football game. Vincent made plays, Pig made plays, Jacob [Carter] made plays. The kids are out there making plays and they are enjoying playing football and are happy about that. What I make of it is that they seem to be trying to go out every day to improve on the practice field and they are playing better.”
Rogers, who became the ninth Vol to achieve the feat of three touchdowns in one game, played one of the best games of his career last Saturday, something that didn’t come as a shock to Chaney.
“I think he has been playing like that all season,” Chaney said. “He has stayed relatively healthy. He has been excited about playing. When his number is called, he has been able to step up and make plays. I don’t see anything changing one way or the other.”
Head coach Derek Dooley wasn’t surprised by his performance either.
“Zach is a senior so you love to see the guys that keep staying with it and over the course of time reach their potential and have success,” Dooley said. “Zach probably practices with the level of consistency better than anybody on our offense and I think that gives Tyler [Bray] a lot of confidence when he drops back knowing where he is going to be and how quickly he is going to be there and that is starting to pay off. He has made a lot of big plays for us and has done it almost every game. He is a real important part of our offense.”
With thanks in part to one of his closest friends off the field, and most trusted receivers on the field, Tyler Bray had arguably his best performance of 2012 against South Carolina.
“The motivation behind his performance, I will leave that for Tyler to tell you one way or the other, but whatever took place I think he played his best football game last week,” Chaney said. “From a mental side he had a pretty solid week of practice. If he was motivated by that, which I hope he was, because it was very well thought out and talked about. He needed to go out and play better and he knew that. He played better and we are happy for him.”
Bray also had a good performance thanks to time in the pocket created by the offensive line, the strongest constant the offense has had this season.
“There is no doubt about it,” Chaney said. “When you are good in the front and in line of scrimmage play in this conference or at any level for that matter. If you feel like you can be successful in the front it makes things a lot easier for play calling. So far we have been able to competitive upfront and I hope we continue that. ”
That strong play starts with someone who hasn’t been mentioned much this season, and someone who had to earn his starting role back at the beginning of fall camp, center James Stone.
“You haven’t noticed him much have you,” Chaney said. “You have just said it all about an offensive lineman. He is doing a nice job. He is delivering the ball accurately to the quarterback. He is getting us in the right schemes for the most part. I am real tickled how he is playing.”
All of the pieces of the puzzle are falling in place for the Vols and Chaney believes that it is just in time for the team to execute a full 60 minutes of football.
“You concentrate on execution,” Chaney said. “It doesn’t matter if it is the first play or the last play you have to go out and execute the play that is called and do the best you can. You have to try to be detailed when you are tired at the end of a ball game. That is all you can ever do.”
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
“We have tried to do our best to close the book on the first eight games even though we have had some great competitive games certainly we haven’t gotten the results that we wanted and expected to get. We are trying to start a second season here and putting the focus on playing the best that we can play this Saturday against a very good opponent who scored a bunch of points and put up a lot of yards. That is our biggest concern is shoring up our defense.”
(On Zach Rogers)
“Zach is a senior so you love to see the guys that keep staying with it and over the course of time reach their potential and have success. Zach probably practices with the level of consistency better than anybody on our offense and I think that gives Tyler [Bray] a lot of confidence when he drops back knowing where he is going to be and how quickly he is going to be there and that is starting to pay off. He has made a lot of big plays for us and has done it almost every game. He is a real important part of our offense.”
(On giving up fewer points)
“We have to hold down the points; that is number one. We have to play better on defense and not give up the plays and the points and if we do that at least we will have a chance.”
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR JIM CHANEY
(On the test ahead for the final four games)
“I don’t believe that to be true and as we have talked about throughout the season, we are only interested in our improvement and going out and playing better. I think last week we played a little bit better than we had been playing which is good and we are looking for that same improvement this upcoming week. We are still making mistakes that we are trying to get rid of and as a coach it is our job to strive for the perfect ball game. We also know that that will never happen, but we have to work towards that and I think our players are trying to do that and we will continue to go out and try to improve on the things that need to be improved.”
(On Rajion Neal’s return)
“Every day it seems like there are 10 more plays that he is out there for, it seems that way. We will see. I watched the tape to see if things are going full speed or not and we will find out as it gets closer to the game. But he appears to be closer than he has been, for obvious reasons, it takes time to heal things and I am hoping that his mindset is getting closer to playing. We could use him.”
(On Alton ‘Pig’ Howard)
“That tends to be the problem with every talented little players you end up finding. Young, little, big, old. How you get them the ball and how creative can you get based on their aptitude to learn things. Pig has a very good football aptitude, he understands football and he gets it. So it is pretty simple to find ways to get him the ball. We have to continue to do that. But we get 80 plays a game and you don’t want to strive so far away from your base offense that you can’t run your base plays. That is always the harmony we are looking for.”
(On the offensive line)
“It is like the tool box we have talked about. If you have a run game and you feel comfortable dialing up a run it sure opens up a lot more things. I think it gives your offensive line more confidence to go out and play better. They are not having to pass protect all the time, it a heck of a lot different ball game. You have to let those guys get their ears back and go. It is a hard game for offensive lineman. Our kids upfront are playing well and I hope they continue down that path.”
(On drives stalling at key points in the game)
“Any drive that doesn’t result in points in frustrating. You are probably referring to when we jumped into two minutes and went three and out there in the second quarter and we had some momentum. Sure it was. We didn’t execute and obviously it didn’t work. It is all about execution and discipline. We are getting better at that but we are not ready to go out there and score on every possession. We sure would like to be able to do that but it is just not the way it is going. We have to continue to strive for that. Our guys will do what they are told to do and what they know to do right, we usually have a measured amount of success because we do have enough talent to move the ball.”
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR SAL SUNSERI
(On the reason for all of the big plays)
“It is if one guy doesn’t get his gap right and then us not having enough leverage and speed to be able to turn the thing back inside and making plays on people when they catch the ball, not a guy missing a tackle, and everybody pursuing the football. The theme is really simple, we have to quit giving up the explosive plays and we have to put them in better positions to make plays.”
(On why the Vols are using more four-man fronts)
“It is because of what we are seeing. A lot of people are playing us in sub, which is three wide receivers and one tight end. The kids feel comfortable in the four-man front, but we still have the ability to go to our 3-4 look out of our nickel, so we will have both but with three and four wide receivers it is better.”
(On playing more with four linemen)
“It has been good for the kids. I think they enjoy it and know what the heck they are doing, so the most important thing is that they go out there and are able to execute it.”
(On the yards the UT defense has given up)
“It is just too much. It is too much. It goes back to coaching. I have to put them in better positions to make plays, so I will take the responsibility on that. Then we have to go out and execute the calls. We are giving up too many points, we have to get tighter coverage, we have to get a better pass rush, we have to do everything right.”
(On if this job has presented more challenges than he thought it would)
“It’s a challenge no matter what you do in life. You come out here and have high expectations and I have to make these guys better. The defensive staff has to make the guys better and they have to go out as a collective group, coaches, players, and all that, we have to work together to get this thing right.”
(On if he is surprised the big plays are still happening)
“There are no surprises in football. You don’t want them to happen, but they happen. There is nothing we can do about it. We just have to try to fix it, that is as simple as it can be. To answer your question, you would like to see it be minimal.”
(On Daniel Gray)
“Dan Gray did a good job when he got in there. With these younger guys we are going to look at everybody to see who is going to give us an opportunity to have speed on the field and make some plays.”
(On Rod Wilks)
“Rod Wilks did some good things. Rod is out there and he is doing good. He had a good week of practice, he had a very good practice today, so the more people we can get involved with guys who are going to go out there and make plays, we are going to give them a chance.”
(On Daniel McCullers)
“I think he has come a long way and I think he can still go a lot further. I think that is what people don’t understand. This kid is a very big kid, he is a strong kid and if he just keeps on working he has a future.”
(On Herman Lathers)
“I was very pleased with what Herman did in this last game. He stayed healthy during it, made a lot of plays, was a leader out there and had an interception. Herman is one of those guys who takes great pride in his work. He’s up here watching tape, he knows his opponent and when you study your opponent and you know your opponent, you are going to make plays.”