Butch Jones brought in Bob Shoop as defensive coordinator to win a Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title.
That goal is still obtainable and Shoop has been praised for his in-game adjustments but expectations have not been met. Most will point to the plethora of injuries to key spots as a reason his unit currently finds itself ranked 76th nationally in total defense (417.4 yards/game).
Gone are defensive tackles Danny O'Brien (dismissal), Kahlil McKenzie (chest), Shy Tuttle (leg), linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder) and Quarté Sapp (knee), and safety Evan Berry (knee). Several other key contributors have missed action with injuries but most are back for the two-game stretch to end the season. With those types of injuries, ranking No. 102 in rushing defense (216.8) is somewhat understandable.
The slow starts for Team 120 are well documented, especially offensively, but the defense has consistently been porous at the onset. Tennessee scored first in just 2 of 10 games and those games were against inferior opponents Ohio and Tennessee Tech. On seven occasions, the Vols have given up a score in the first two drives.
Shoop has tried different motivational techniques throughout the week to try to get his unit going.
"We are a funny group," Shoop said Monday. "I can't put my finger on it. I think we need our backs against the wall for us to be at our best. Our guys need to have that killer instinct. They need to play better."
On Saturday, Kentucky rushed for 75 yards on the first play and it only took one more snap to get into the end zone. This marked the sixth time that Tennessee gave up a touchdown drive in one of their opponents' first two series. Only one team in the SEC (Vanderbilt) has given up more. Alabama, Auburn, Florida and Louisiana State have given up a league-low two touchdowns. The Vols rank ninth in the SEC in scoring defense but find themselves ranked lower in statics figured early in games.
"You can't have a dumb play on the first play of the game," Shoop said. "If it were one thing I could eliminate that one thing but it's RaShaan Gaulden not taking the quarterback on that one play, it's Cortez McDowell and Stephen Griffin misfitting a power on another play, it's a miss tackle on another play, so it's just consistency. I understand the frustrations."
The Vols also rank near the bottom of the SEC, forcing only four three-and-outs, which is only one better than Missouri and South Carolina for last place.
The Vols have given up 726 yards to their opponents in the first two drives, which places them 13th in the SEC, just ahead of Missouri (747 yards).
Shoop's in-game adjustments have been on point, but he is going to have to correct the first-quarter mistakes if the Vols are going to finish the regular season in style and potentially head to Atlanta with more confidence in his defense.