Tackling Derrick Henry is akin to bear hugging a Mack Truck on the Interstate. The 6-foot-3, 242-pound running back has accounted for 901 yards and 12 touchdowns already this season as he barrels Alabama toward another potential SEC West title. Henry is averaging 128 yards per game and has made a living breaking tackles and stiff-arming defenders into the turf.
To mimick that type of a test, Tennessee's staff got a little creative, inserting 6-foot-3, 233-pound tight end Neiko Creamer to simulate Henry's large frame on the scout team.
“He’s a bigger body,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “He looks very similar to Derrick in terms of his size, so we put him back there and let him run. He did a great job the last two days.”
Although his position coach, Mark Elder, isn't able to see much of him in practice while Elder prepares the special teams, the glimpses he's seen of Creamer mimicking one of the best running backs in the country have been encouraging as the Vols work toward trying to keep Henry from gaining downhill momentum.
"He's a big guy that runs pretty well in those regards," Elder said. "I haven't been critiquing him like I have the tight ends as much, but he's doing a great job as far as effort and those things are concerned."
The former Scout five-star carries the ball 21 times a game and is the enormous engine that keeps the Crimson Tide's offense chugging. Stopping Alabama's offense starts with containing Henry and preventing him from getting into a rhythm in a primarily zone blocking system.
"He's just something special because he's so big and he's so powerful," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "He has such a great stiff arm. I think in the Arkansas game he stiff armed three guys right in a row, so you don't want to let him get steam. We want to get to him early and we want to get to him with multiple hats."
Limiting the long ball
Since its 43-37 loss to Ole Miss in Week 3, Alabama has given up an average of 11.75 points a game. After giving up long pass plays of 73 and 67 yards to the Rebels, the Tide are No. 1 in the SEC in opponent long plays from scrimmage with opposing teams having ran just 62 plays of 10 yards or more on them this season.
"They haven't given up the deep balls since then," offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. "They had a couple of deep balls in that game and they haven't given them up since then. They had that one play that got tipped about 35 times before it was caught and advanced down the field. I would say they're just not giving up the long balls anymore."
The Vols want to be patient in their scheme and not get away from their run-first mentality despite what may happen when Alabama is on offense.
"I think that's very important. I think that we're going to have to be patient," DeBord said. "We've faced very good defenses this season and we tried to be patient with those. We'll have a similar approach in this ballgame as well."
Notably missing from practice Tuesday was running back Jalen Hurd, who was not on Haslam Field with the rest of the team as the Vols prepare for Alabama.
According to offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, the sophomore running back is battling the flu.
"He had the flu, so he's battling that a little bit," DeBord said. "He's going to be fine. We think he'll probably be able to go tomorrow. He's just battling the flu bug."
Hurd leads the team in rushing with 526 yards and seven touchdowns this season.
Head coach Butch Jones focused on improving Tennessee's porous tackling in the first half of the season during the bye week. John Jancek did the same, and the Vols are now making it a priority to practice the fundamentals of tackling as they prepare to face an aggressive Alabama offense littered with physical skill position players.
"We really committed a lot of time to it," Jancek said. "We actually did some live tackling drills, taking guys to the ground. I saw our guys really improving. I saw them taking great pride in becoming a better tackling defense. They know that missed tackles are not acceptable. They're working hard to improve."