Defense, Special Teams Need Work

Here's the top to bottom ratings for the Tennessee-Louisiana Tech game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are winning marks. Grades of 60-69 are passing but problematical. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. (We have broken down the units this week to offense and defense because there was considerable disparity in their play.)

DEFENSIVE LINE: (80) The D-line struggled early but came on to post a solid game. After surrendering 97 yards to standout tailback Ryan Moats in the first half, the Vols didn't allow him a single net yard in the second half and held La Tech to a total of 66 net yards on the ground for the game. Likewise, the pressure on the quarterback got better as the game progressed as the Vols finished with five sacks. Jesse Mahelona is a force anchoring the center of the line, creating opportunities for the linebackers to clean up. Turk McBride is beginning to realize some of the enormous potential he came to UT with last year as a high school all-American and appears to be developing the technique as a pass rusher to go with his outstanding physical ability. Justin Harrell is a steady at defensive tackle but needs to become more of a disrupter in the trenches. Xavier Mitchell got some PT and deliver a sack. He's another player that could become an effective pass rusher on the edge. Ditto for Antonio Reynolds at defensive end. Parys Harralson was around the football but didn't record a tackle. Neither did fifth-year senior Karlton Neal. Maintaining their run gaps is a key for UT's D-line this week against Auburn.

LINEBACKERS: (79) Four of Tennessee's top six tacklers were linebackers, including chart topper Omar Gaither with 11 stops (nine solo). Jason Mitchell and Jon Poe took over for the injured Kevin Simon in the middle and performed well, although each had his trials in coverage. Kevin Burnett (five tackles) had a quality start until he was forced out of game with a twisted ankle. He was replaced by sophomore Daniel Brooks who had the best game of his young career. Brooks' ability to reinforce the outside linebacker positions is a key to UT's linebacker corps this year with Mitchell moving to the middle. The Vols need another young linebacker to step up his game and contribute to the rotation. Burnett and Gaither each contributed fine interceptions to Tennessee's defensive efforts. However, the group as a whole could do a better job tackling.

SPECIAL TEAMS: (65) Outside of Dustin Colquitt's booming punts and superb placement (three of his six punts went out inside the 20), UT's special teams have been spotty this season at best. That was true again Saturday as the Vols were 0 for 1 on field goal attempts and netted only 19 yards on five returns while allowing 97 yards on four returns. As the margin for error gets finer with tougher competition, this type of disparity could make the difference in a tight game. The Vols need someone who can catch punts, if not return them, to prevent the long rolls that eat up vital yards. The overall lack of production on kick returns is disturbing as is UT's coverage of kickoffs.

SECONDARY: (62) This is still UT's weakest link as Vol defensive backs were scorched by La Tech's second-team quarterback for 258 yards on 17-of-30 passing, including a 54-yard completion and a touchdown. The names change but the performance is largely the same — not good. At times in the first half, UT's DBs were running around like a Chinese fire drill trying to get lined up in the right position. It looked much the same as Tennessee played in the first half against Chris Leak of Florida. However, once again Tennessee's staff made adjustments at the half and the Vols played better. The key is finding the combination of players that work best as a unit and that appears to be a challenge for coach Larry Slade since some of the DBs that can cover don't tackle particularly well while the ones that can tackle don't cover. Example: RoShaun Fellows recorded seven tackles (six solo) but appeared lost in coverage more than once. Conversely, Corey Campbell has the speed and talent to be effective in coverage but he's not a good tackler at this point which can be disastrous at free safety since he's the last line of defense. Both Jonathan Hefney and Jonathan Wade are inconsistent, which isn't surprising seeing that they are getting their first taste of playing on an island at the collegiate level. The cushion being allowed by UT's corners is easy pickings for D-I signal callers. The ingredients are there for a fine secondary, but the schedule is unforgiving. This may be the biggest challenge Slade has faced at Tennessee and he'll need to call on all of his experience to bring the secondary up to standards. Luckily, he has a big-time talent in Jason Allen who can help ground this group and elevate its play.

OVERALL: (73) If Louisiana Tech had done most of its damage on offense late instead of early, the 17 points and 330 yards wouldn't be as much of a concern. However, the Bulldogs biggest bites were taken out of UT's No. 1 defense which makes one wonder what would have happened against Jason Campbell or David Greene. The paradox is that if you've got problems with one aspect of play the entire defense suffers. Improving secondary play is Job One for Tennessee's staff this week.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories