Cameron Sutton was pretty succinct in his assessment of Tennessee’s confidence as a secondary following Saturday’s game against Bowling Green. The Vols’ defense surrendered 433 passing yards and 30 points to the Falcons’ high-tempo offense, but Sutton — who was rarely thrown to during the course of the game — isn’t concerned heading into a marquee matchup with Oklahoma Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
Was their confidence shaken after a big showing in the air by Bowling Green?
“Not at all,” Sutton said. “We have a confident group. Everybody is confident and, like I said, things are going to happen through the course of a game. That’s football. Nobody is down about anything that happened in the game. We’re just going to build all week and get better.”
Despite a couple of breakdowns in coverage that led to explosive plays and 6.6 yards per snap for quarterback Matt Johnson and his offense, Sutton believes the issues are fixable.
“A lot of things are technique things (and) winning the line of scrimmage,” Sutton said. “We’ve always got to continue perfecting our craft each and every day doing the little things, staying square, getting our hands on receivers, wedging receivers, things like that.”
Butch Jones was quick to not lay the entirety of Bowling Green’s success through the air solely on the secondary. Tennessee’s third-year head coach pointed out his team’s lack of a pass rush. The Vols recorded three sacks, but two were on linebacker blitzes by Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland.
“With a naked eye, everyone wants to point toward the secondary. That’s not how pass defense works,” Jones said. “It’s all 11 individuals and it starts up front with generating the pass rush. It starts up front with generating the pass rush. It starts up front with our get-off off the ball, the use of our hands. It starts with the second level, with our linebackers, and then the third level is our secondary."
Tennessee’s pass defense expects to be tested just as much Saturday against Oklahoma and its Air Raid offense under new offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. New Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield, a Texas Tech transfer, passed Sam Bradford in setting a school record in a debut start with 388 passing yards in his team's 41-3 win over Akron Saturday.
"It gets back to that baseline performance, and our players take pride in their performance," Jones said. "They understand that, and the great thing is we can work to correct the problems this week.”
Jones expects strong safety Todd Kelly Jr. to be “100 percent” Saturday following an extended hospital stay last week with an infection after having his tonsils removed, and cornerback Justin Martin is scheduled to have an extended role in the secondary as he continues rehabilitating his knee. With those two healthy and in the mix, the Vols’ defensive backs are hoping to make a leap from Week 1 to Week 2 as they entertain a skilled Oklahoma offense.
“Playing great pass defense, there’s a lot of working parts and pieces and components," Jones said. "Everyone wants to look at the secondary because that’s what they see. They see the end of the play, but there’s a lot of things that go into the beginning of the play as well ... We need to get better in a hurry, because we have a football team coming in here that's skilled.”