Defense Shines Against Rebels

Tennessee's defense was in disarray early in the season — no pass rush, a spotty secondary, generous in yards allowed — but John Chavis has whipped his troops into shape and the Vols are back on the attack after posting a pair of impressive outings vs. Georgia and Ole Miss.

Here's the top to bottom offensive ratings for the Tennessee-Ole Miss game. Grades of 90-100 are regarded as championship quality. Grades of 80-89 equate to top 25 worthy, grades of 70-79 are average 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. Special teams are also included in the defensive grades.

DEFENSIVE LINE (96) Tennessee's defense held Ole Miss to 227 net yards and 10 points on the road after limiting Georgia's high-powered offense to 14 points in Athens. Any good defensive effort begins with the D-line and UT probably had its best performance of the season against the Rebels, beginning with Jesse Mahelona who had two sacks for minus 21 yards and three total tackles behind the line of scrimmage before leaving with a knee sprain. Jason Hall had seven tackles including a couple of sacks for minus six yards and three tackles for losses. Hall has become UT's most consistent pass rusher at defensive end and this was probably the best game of his career. Parys Haralson held up his post at strong side end and kept pressure on Ole Miss' trio of QBs although he didn't finish with a sack. Turk McBride had three tackles while Karlton Neal and Justin Harrell added two stops each. The play of the defensive line made it possible for UT's speed at linebacker and the secondary to deny Ole Miss big plays. In fact the Rebels longest gain was a 21-yard scramble by quarterback Robert Lane.

SECONDARY (94) UT allowed Ole Miss to complete only 14-of-27 passes for 168 yards and Brandon Johnson came up with two interceptions that stopped drives. Earlier this year Johnson was criticized in this space for failing to come up with an interception against Auburn that could have altered the outcome of the contest. Now he's praised as a player who is becoming more comfortable in his role at strong safety and more aggressive in his approach. Big, strong and athletic, the junior has come a long way since he arrived on campus last year as a junior college corner. Jason Allen continues to impress with his physical and athletic play at free safety. He and Johnson had three tackles each against Ole Miss and are imposing run stoppers as well as able ball hawks. Jonathan Hefney contributed six tackles at the corner and Roshaun Fellows added two. The freshmen have made a lot of progress this season and appear to be coming into their own in man coverage.

LINEBACKER (91) Tennessee didn't have as many tackles from the linebackers as usual but they were around the football a lot and helped hold Ole Miss to a paltry 3.2 yards per play in the game. Omar Gaither led the Vols with nine tackles and has become an impact performer at outside linebacker. Kevin Burnett, who was named a Butkus finalist last week, finished with three tackles as did middle linebacker Jon Poe. Jason Mitchell shared time in the middle and had two stops, one behind the line of scrimmage. Mitchell also showed some excellent speed and coverage skills. It's notable that all three of UT's starting linebackers were defensive backs in high school.

SPECIAL TEAMS (72) Probably the most disappointing aspect of UT's play to this point of the season. The Vols are used to getting nothing out of the return game but they actually got less than nothing with Hefney's muffed punt that set Ole Miss up in Tennessee territory. Derrick Tinsley replaced Hefney and was shaky fielding punts and unproductive returning them. He finished with two returns for four yards. After getting an important 33-yard return against Georgia, Corey Larkins had three returns for only 59 yards against Ole Miss as he reverted to the same tentative running style that has underscored his efforts over the last three years. On his last return with UT trailing for the first time in the game, Larkins changed directions three times and was tackled at the 17. Dustin Colquitt had the special team's highlight when he hit an open Chris Hannon for a 19-yard gain on a fake punt for a first down. However his punting was a little more sporadic than usual as Espy brought one line drive punt back 19 yards. James Wilhoit took a direct snap on one field goal alignment and punted the ball into the end zone for a net gain of 16 yards. He didn't attempt any field goals in the game. Against better opponents the kicking game will often spell the difference and UT needs an upgrade across the board.

OVERALL (93) Tennessee's defense saved the Vols from a loss and dropping the lead in the SEC East. It is rounding into a cohesive unit that is sure to improve as the secondary and defensive line gain experience working together.

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