Malik Foreman spent his first game at nickel corner intermittently getting beat by a MAC team's wide receiver and drawing ire from both coaches and fans. Fast forward to Week 12 and Foreman has solidified himself as the starter at nickel after sealing an enormous victory for Tennessee over South Carolina with a game-winning forced fumble.
Defensive coordinator John Jancek has witnessed Foreman's transformation in recent weeks into a competent nickelback who posseses a skill set conducive to trailing a quick slot receiver and making open field tackles.
"I think there was a little bit of a transition for him, but now he's made a couple of plays," Jancek said. "He's becoming more comfortable and just playing with a lot of confidence right now."
Foreman followed his heroic play against the Gamecocks with four tackles, two pass breakups and one tackle for loss in a 24-0 win over North Texas. The junior from Kingsport has transformed into the playmaking nickelback Tennessee needed after Rashaan Gaulden was lost for the season in fall camp, and it hasn't been lost on his coach.
"He's making plays," Jancek said. "He's in position. He's getting guys on the ground in the perimeter, making some open field tackles and obviously punching the ball out at the South Carolina game was a huge play for him. He's around the ball, but now he's making plays that he should be and that we expect him to make."
When Steve Stripling started this year, he had 16 healthy defensive lineman to make up one of the deepest units on the team. As Tennessee prepares to face Missouri in its final road game of the season, that number has now been dwindled down to 11. Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle, Curt Maggitt, Trevarris Saulsberry and Andrew Butcher have all been ruled out for the season at various points in the year for different injuries. It's a situation the Vols third-year defensive line coach has never been a part of in his coaching career.
"No, it's just kind of one of those situations," Stripling said. "Last spring I had never been in a situation where we had four or five shoulder (injuries) as well, so it's just the world we live in. That's why you have to have depth and have numbers."
The injuries haven't forced Tennessee to change the way it dishes out its reps in practice, but the limited numbers has prevented the scout team from showing its best look during scrimmages.
"I think probably the biggest difference is we don't have the quality or the experienced players going out on the scout team," he said. "When you have all those guys available, you can go down there and be able to give a better look."
Cheeseburger, Not Chicken
Josh Malone emerged this season as Tennessee's most consistent target, leading the Vols with 27 receptions and 353 yards and two receiving touchdowns. Passing game coordinator Zach Azzanni saw a mental change in Malone's approach to the season in training camp and it's shown in his production down the stretch.
"He just has a different mindset," Azzanni said. "He's a prideful kid. He wanted to get better and his mentality is better, his practice habits are better, how he lives is better. Can he still get a lot better in that regard? Absolutely. I expect next year to be even above next year."
Azzanni said Malone has played the most reps of any receiver on the team and made it his mission to become a more consistent player in training camp. The third-year Vols wide receivers coach makes sure to let Malone know what he wants from him on the field, which undoubtedly helps.
"He came out of training camp and he was good, but as a coach you say, let's see how consistent he can be," Azzanni said. "I always say I ordered a No. 3 today at McDonald's. What am I getting? I want a No. 3. I want a Josh Malone, the guy who runs fast, jumps high and makes people miss. I asked for a double cheeseburger. I don't want a chicken sandwich. I want the same thing every day."
Quarterback Josh Dobbs didn't come away from the North Texas game with a performance he'll likely want to remember. The junior threw for just 136 yards and an interception against the No. 124 total defense coming into the game, and offensive coordinator Mike DeBord saw a couple of untimely throws he knows his quarterback realized were poor.
"He had a couple of throws he wished he had back, and you know what, I had a couple of calls I wish I had back," DeBord said. "It's a human game. There's mistakes and there's a couple of times, yes, he wished he had a couple of throws there (back) and, as I just said, I wish I had a couple of calls back. That's the way it works and you learn from it and move on."
Dobbs struggled with his accuracy throughout the game and threw his lone interception with his team driving for a potential score with less than a minute to go in the first half.
"He wasn't forcing it," DeBord said. "There was some separation there, but he underthrew it there a little bit too. He should have not thrown it. He knew that. When the ball was in the air, he went, 'Oh, no.'"