Vols Must Reinforce the Middle

Football and baseball are about as dissimilar as sports can be: football is linear, baseball is circular, football is finite, baseball is infinite. Football is teetered to the clock as time is critical component, while baseball in its most perfect state can theoretically last forever. (A point anyone who's watched the last two Red Sox-Yankees playoff games can surely attest.)

However these great American pastimes share a core principle that's essential to success i.e. you have to be strong down the middle to have a strong defense. A baseball team needs strength at catcher, pitcher, second baseball, shortstop and centerfield. In football you need strength at tackle, middle linebacker, and safety.

That concept comes to mind when considering the state of Tennessee's stop troops as they enter a crucial SEC contest against arch rival Alabama. As things stand the Vols will be without the services of their best run stopper, Jesse Mahelona, who has a knee sprain, middle linebacker Kevin Simon who was lost for the season due to a torn ACL against Florida, and strong safety Brandon Johnson who is indefinitely suspended following an off campus incident in which Johnson allegedly discharged a firearm. (That's rather ironic, considering that a safety is supposed to prevent a gun from discharging.)

Certainly, the irony is lost upon John Chavis who is too focused on the immediate challenge to ponder amusing asides. After all, he has to find a way to stop a resurgent Crimson Tide offense with a defense that is missing key elements in all three levels of the alignment — all down the middle.

UT's defensive coordinator has done very well filling Simon's post, although UT fans can't help but imagine how dominant the defense might have become with one of its genuine stars playing full time. However the loss of Mahelona and Johnson makes Tennessee particularly susceptible to the run and will make it much more difficult to pressure the passer. Mahelona has shown the ability to beat blockers one-on-one which has forced foes to use double teams, creating single-block opportunities for other D-linemen and blitzing linebackers.

Because Tennessee uses its strong safety in run support a lot, it often becomes a fourth linebacker. Johnson's size and strength made him ideal in that role and it allowed Jason Allen to move to free safety, giving UT an imposing pair of physical safeties against the run. Allen will now likely move to strong safety with Cory Campbell taking over at free safety where he started the season and sometimes struggled.

Chavis may decide to move weak-side tackle Justin Harrell to Mahelona's strong-side position and use one of the defensive ends, either Turk McBride or Karlton Neal, to fortify the hole left by Harrell. Anthony McDaniel will also factor into the tackle rotation as will LeRon Harris, although the latter didn't impress against Ole Miss.

Anyway Chavis addresses the problem, UT will be not be nearly as strong down the middle and the offense will need to be more productive than it has been the last two games if the Vols are to prevail against the Crimson Tide.


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