Vol defenders struggled so much to grasp their original scheme, in fact, that the toned-down defense they're playing in November bears little resemblance to the one they played in September.
"You can tell that Coach (Derek) Dooley is a little stressed out because we've changed the way we're playing our defense," sophomore cornerback Justin Coleman said recently. "Everybody's feeling a little bit of frustration."
Sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt agreed, noting that the scheme is "a lot more simple. I don't feel it's the same defense as of now."
Basically, opposing quarterbacks dropped so many bombs early in the season that the Vols have gone to a less complicated, less risky scheme in hopes of cutting down on the long pass plays.
"I feel like we have," said Maggitt, who is sidelined the rest of 2012 with a knee injury. "We've simplified the defense a lot more, making sure everybody knows their assignments and knows what to do."
In addition to trimming down the playbook and toning down the gambles, Tennessee has been backing up the secondary.
"We're trying to play off a little bit so the ball won't get thrown over our heads when we're playing man," Coleman said, "because the cornerbacks feel like they're on an island a lot."
Ten games into the season, however, Vol defensive backs continue getting the ball thrown over their heads with alarming frequency. Troy completed throws of 32, 37, 34, 40, 34 and 33 yards en route to 721 yards of total offense in Game 9.
"It was very frustrating being out there when Troy was getting big plays on us," nose tackle Daniel McCullers said. "Every other play they was just shooting it over our heads.... It was embarrassing to give up that many yards to Troy. They're a good team but we're much better than what we showed."
|Even though linebacker Curt Maggitt is lost for the season with an ACL tear, the Vol defense is showing signs of growth.|
"Somewhat," he said. "But the plays we gave up, we know what to do. We just gave it up. I don't know why. It was stupid mistakes we made. It was kind of embarrassing."
The performance was especially embarrassing for Tennessee defensive backs. They were torched for 496 passing yards by Troy in Game 9, most allowed by a Vol defense in program history. Missouri's James Franklin, playing on a gimpy left knee, burned Tennessee for four touchdown passes in Game 10.
"Balls are getting thrown over our heads, and sometimes we don't make the play," Coleman conceded. "That's just something where we've got to play harder the next play.
"We know we've been having a hard time in the secondary but we're trying to keep it positive out there. It's extremely tough but that's something we're really working on. We're trying to change everything we're doing. We're working on keeping our technique right."
Tennessee's coaches began simplifying the defense several weeks ago. Maggitt says he sees benefits.
"It's helping guys understand what they're doing," he said. "They don't have to do too much thinking. They're able to play and react fast."
That being the case, though, how do you explain the fact the Vols continue suffering so many assignment busts?
"You don't explain it," Maggitt said. "You just go out and try to fix it, make sure everybody's on the same page."