This suggests Tennessee’s young and depth-shy defense is wearing down in the final period. Saturday’s 35-32 loss at Georgia was a perfect example. After managing just 79 rushing yards through the first three quarters, superstar running back Todd Gurley gashed the Vols for 129 (including a 51-yard touchdown burst) in the final period.
Tennessee’s depth projects to be even thinner Saturday against Florida, now that second-team weakside linebacker Dillon Bates is lost for the season with a torn labrum. Making matters worse is the fact he backs up Jalen Reeves-Maybin, the Vols’ most overworked player.
“We still have way too many players on our defensive side playing in the 80-90 snap range, when you put defense and special teams together,” Vol head coach Butch Jones said, not specifically mentioning Maybin by name.
Asked how many snaps he can play, Maybin smiled and deadpanned, “I feel like I can go all day.”
In addition to depth, Tennessee’s defensive coaches are worried about Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel, rated No. 1 at his position coming out of high school four years ago. He is completing just 56.0 percent of his passes this fall but has 83 rushing yards and a 4.6 yards-per-carry average.
“Driskel’s a dual threat, and we fully anticipate a lot of designed quarterback runs in our game,” Jones said. “He poses a great challenge.”
Most quarterbacks hand the ball to a running back, then get out of the way, essentially leaving the offense to go 10 against 11. A quarterback who keeps the ball evens the odds at 11 against 11. Even when Driskel isn’t running for positive yardage he is buying time to throw by moving in the pass pocket.
“They have an extra hat (blocker) in the run game,” Jones noted, “and the ability to extend plays is kind of the theme all throughout the course of football – not just at the collegiate level but the professional level, as well. Driskel presents a whole different dynamic to our football team. We saw that with Arkansas State and Fredi Knighten (who rushed for 65 yards and a touchdown).”
Although Driskel is coming off a horrendous performance at Alabama that saw him complete just 9 of 28 pass attempts for 93 yards with 2 interceptions, Jones puts no stock in those numbers.
“Driskel can throw the football,” the coach said. “There’s a reason he was the No. 1 recruited quarterback in the country. I’ve been impressed with his play. Their coaching staff is playing to his strengths.”
Jones emphasized during his Monday news conference that key defensive plays don’t always show up on the tackle chart. That’s why the Vol staff awards “swarm points” to deserving defenders.
“The amateurs just want to look at the stat page and say ‘He had this many tackles.’ But that’s not impacting the game,” the head man said. “Impactful plays can be an interception. It can be ball disruption. It can be a strip. It can be a tackle for loss. It can be affecting the quarterback … getting in his throwing lane or making him flush the pocket.”
Perfect example: Freshman safety Todd Kelly recorded just 2 tackles and 2 assists Saturday but made a leaping interception at the Georgia 47-yard line. Teammate A.J. Johnson’s reaction: “Man, that was sick!”
Speaking of Johnson, he was not at his best versus Georgia, despite being credited with 17 tackles.
“There was times where I think his competitiveness – wanting to do too much and playing outside of the defense – got us into trouble,” Jones said. “He wants to impact the game on every single snap but sometimes being a great football player means understanding the scheme and letting the scheme work for you.”
Conversely, junior linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt registered a mere 3 tackles and 2 assists but played “his best game of the year,” according to Jones.
“He played more Sam (strongside) linebacker,” the coach added. “He really did some great things. He was extremely productive. He had a lot of impactful plays. It was really the first game where we could feel his presence.”