Alabama's defense makes its living as a fierce unit that thrives on stuffing the run and winning early downs to put offenses in pressing situations. The Crimson Tide currently sit at No. 6 nationally in total defense, giving up just 271.9 yards a game for an average of four yards per play. Nick Saban's team is even better against the run, where it ranks No. 3 in the NCAA with opponents gaining just 70 yards per game against a nasty front seven led by defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reggie Ragland.
"They're very, very deep, and I think what they have is that they have depth, but they also have what we call diversity amongst the defensive front," Butch Jones said. "They have individuals who are big-bodied, two-gap players who are very strong and can hold their gaps. They have quick athletes that they can bring in to rush the passer, so I think they have great depth, they have great diversity and they have individuals with corner skills across the board who can play man coverage."
Running the ball against Alabama isn't something most teams do, but it's also what Tennessee does best, presenting a conundrum of sorts for a team that has developed into one of the best rushing teams in the country. Jones and his staff have stressed a measured approach all week in dealing with such a good run-stopping team, trading panic for patience and a balanced approach led by Josh Dobbs.
"If Alabama makes you one dimensional, you're in for a long day," Jones said. "We have to be able to have a balanced attack. We have to be able to run the football, but we have to be able to throw the football. You're playing a great defense. They don't give up much rushing yards. We have to be persistent with the run. We have to be patient with the run, but it's going to come down to execution and big plays."
The blueprint for beating Alabama almost always involves creating a big splash play. Ole Miss was able to produce one with a 73-yard touchdown strike from Chad Kelly to Cody Core late in the third quarter to help close out a win over the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa. Tennessee's best opportunity for a momentum-generating explosive play may be on special teams, where the Vols currently rank No. 1 in kickoff return yard average at 37.25 yards to go along with two return touchdowns on the year.
"When you play really good special teams, that really shows you the character of your football program in terms of indisputable role understanding. Everybody understanding their role, taking pride in their role and executing it. We have individuals that there job or their responsibility so far have been limited to special teams, but they're performing at a really high level and they're helping us in every way, shape or form because they're helping us on special teams."
Jones' unit has almost been just as good on punt returns, ranking No. 16 in the NCAA averaging 43 yards a game in helping Tennessee's offense generate positive field position throughout the year. Utilizing these two areas will be critical to keeping the Vols in the game and creating another avenue for a scoring opportunity.
"Special teams, we feel, is always a way to change momentum, create momentum for us and create a big play," Butch Jones said. "We'll be challenged, obviously, by Alabama because they have very good special teams and very good personnel."
Injury UpdateGuard Jashon Robertson was absent from practice Tuesday and has been "very, very limited" this week per head coach Butch Jones.
"Today and tomorrow are big days for him," Jones said. "I'll know a little bit more on him a little later in the week, but Dylan Wiesman will be an invididual who could bump over. We ask a lot of Dylan, from playing left guard, to right guard, to center, to a lot of things, but obviously that would change things."
Jalen Hurd also missed Tuesday's practice while battling the flu per offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, Hurd, who has rushed for 526 yards and seven touchdowns so far this season, is expected to be ready to play Saturday against Alabama.
"It's not a real big concern. He's already checked in for treatments and he'll be at practice and he'll go through a full practice (Wednesday)," Jones said. "The big thing was getting him in bed and getting his body right and we fully anticipate him being ready to go."
Other injured players like right tackle Brett Kendrick, offensive lineman Mack Crowder and wide receiver Marquez North all participated in practice Tuesday and Jones said Monday he expects them to be available Saturday.
"We're still fighting the injury bug a little bit," Jones said. "I'll know more in terms of a lot of these injuries come tomorrow and Friday, but that's where we're at in our football program. I have really been impressed and I appreciate our players with the resiliency. One individual goes down, the next individual is ready to go."