No. 23 Tennessee eyes defensive improvements with No. 19 Oklahoma visiting

A year ago Tennessee gave up 34 points and 454 yards of total offense at Oklahoma in one of the Vols' worst defeats of the season. Has the Big Orange defense improved enough to earn a victory?

Tennessee players don't believe they performed up to their defensive standards in the Volunteers' opener, and vow to be better with the stakes higher.

But defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt said no big speeches were necessary after the defense staggered through the 59-30 victory over Bowling Green. Everyone already understood a repeat performance won't be nearly good enough to beat No. 19 Oklahoma.

"Last week wasn't the 'Orange Swarm' defense," said Maggitt, who serves as the vocal leader of Tennessee's defense. "We didn't play to that standard. This week will be different."

The 23rd-ranked Volunteers allowed 433 yards passing and 557 total yards against Bowling Green, which stayed within striking distance before giving up the game's final 17 points. Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson wasn't intercepted all day and continually burned Tennessee's young defensive backs.

That's not an encouraging sign for a Tennessee defense that now faces a tougher test.

Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield threw for 388 yards and three touchdowns without an interception in a 41-3 rout of Akron last week. Sterling Shepard is a big-play receiver who caught five passes for 109 yards in a 34-10 triumph over Tennessee last year. Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon give Oklahoma a formidable tandem at running back.

"They're very skilled at every position - running back, quarterback and receiver," Tennessee safety Brian Randolph said. "They have a lot of weapons they can go to. We've got to be prepared to stop them all."

Tennessee has reason to believe its defense will get better.

The Vols played much of their season opener without safety Todd Kelly Jr., who spent most of last week in the hospital having an abscess removed after feeling pain his throat. Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Kelly brought "a calming effect" to the defense when he was in the game.

Kelly said he's back at 100 percent as he gets ready for Oklahoma.

Tennessee also returns secondary coach Willie Martinez, who served a one-game suspension last week for impermissible contact with a potential recruit. His absence may have played a role in some of the breakdowns that resulted in long pass plays for Bowling Green.

But the Vols' issues on defense last week went beyond the secondary.

"To the naked eye, everyone wants to point toward the secondary because that's what they see, they see the conclusion of the play," Jones said. "What they don't understand is to play great pass defense, it takes all 11 individuals working together as one and playing great collective defense. There were individual breakdowns, some up front and some in the back end. And sometimes it's a really good football team offensively making a really good play."

Although the Vols did produce three sacks against Bowling Green, defensive coordinator John Jancek said he expected Tennessee's front four to provide a little more pressure. One of those sacks last week came from tackle Danny O'Brien, who has since been suspended for a violation of team rules. Sophomore walk-on Colton Jumper and freshman Darrin Kirkland Jr. endured some growing pains while alternating at middle linebacker.

"We didn't play well as a defense," Jancek said. "The kids know it. It was a disappointing performance. We have to get better in a hurry."

The Vols believe they'll do just that. They say their struggles against Bowling Green haven't shaken their faith in this defense.

"Everybody is confident," cornerback Cam Sutton said. "Things are going to happen throughout the course of a game. That's football. Nobody's down about anything that happened in the (Bowling Green) game. We're just going to build off it and continue to get better."


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