Inside the Numbers: Safety Dance

With the Vols firmly entrenched in the top three of preseason polls, it's much easier to dream of SEC and national championships than to dwell on potential shortcomings.

Such dreams are luxuries fans can afford, but coaches can not. They must not only solve problems but anticipate them and they must work with severe time constraints. Without a playoff system in place it doesn't pay to reach a peak in time for the post season, as an early defeat can be just as damaging as a late loss. Last season, Auburn did what many thought was impossible — go 13-0, win the SEC title and not figure into the national championship picture.

In light of that precedent, can Tennessee afford an early defeat in a front-loaded schedule and remain a viable title contender? Certainly it's possible. The Vols were in just that situation in 2001 before a setback to underdog LSU in the SEC Championship game cost them a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena which hosted the BCS title contest.

Four years later, the title showdown is again in the Rose Bowl and Tennessee faces a schedule that is very similar to the one it undertook in 2001 with road games against Florida, Alabama, Notre Dame and Kentucky, and home games against Georgia, Memphis and Vanderbilt. Again the Vols face LSU but this time in Baton Rouge instead of Knoxville.

In part one of this piece we looked at the role the safeties played in UT's early 2004 struggles and how the move of Jason Allen from corner to safety helped stabilize a suspect secondary. The significance of that move is again in the spotlight because UT is currently listing two inexperienced, undersized players at strong and free safeties.

It's not an intended knock against either Jonathan Hefney or Antwan Stewart to question their qualifications for starting roles at safety. They have both started in the secondary, albeit, primarily at corner, and each has talent. The bigger concern is whether they possess the size and athleticism needed to support the run while also defending deep passes. Obviously, they are both improving, but Allen remains UT's only proven safety.

The move of Allen from corner to safety in 2004 overshadowed another move in the secondary last season that proved just as important. In fact, when you look at the numbers you can't help but appreciate just how critical it is to have athletic enforcers in the final line of UT's attacking defense.

Brandon Johnson, who at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, matched Allen's size, speed, strength and agility very closely, started just five games for the Vols last season and played in seven before being dismissed from the team for discharging a firearm at his off campus apartment. At first Johnson was UT's nickel back before earning a start against Louisiana Tech at corner. He played both corner and safety against Auburn, but became the starting strong side safety along side Allen before the Georgia game.

In the three SEC games Allen and Johnson started at safety, the Vols beat Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama, allowing only 14 points per game. Two of those games were on the road and the Bulldogs were just coming off a 45-16 trouncing of LSU.

Here's where it gets very interesting. In the three games Allen and Johnson started side-by-side at safety, UT allowed 47-of-95 completions for 490 yards. That's a completion percentage of 49 percent and an average of 163 yards per game passing.

In the first three SEC games in which they didn't start at safety — Florida, Auburn and South Carolina — the Vols allowed that trio of opponents to complete 82-of-103 passes for 879 yards or an average of 293 yards per game and a completion percentage of 81 percent.

Admittedly, Florida and Auburn had better passing attacks than Alabama and Ole Miss, but South Carolina wasn't as good as Georgia. If we compare just those games, which were both on the road, we see Tennessee held the Bulldogs to 19-of-41 passing for 209 yards, while UT allowed the Gamecocks to complete 34-of-49 for 341 yards.

In the last three SEC games in which Allen played free safety but Johnson was no longer a member of the squad, Tennessee allowed Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Auburn to complete a combined 67-of-101 passes for 906 yards. That's 66 percent completions for an average of 302 yards per game, compared to 49 percent for 163 yards in games both Allen and Johnson started at safety.

To sum it up: Tennessee went 3-0, surrendering 14 points per game in SEC contests that Allen and Johnson started at safeties. UT went 4-2, surrendering an average of 32 points in SEC games in which the duo didn't start at safeties. When Allen and Johnson were teamed together at safeties against SEC opponents, the Vols allowed 49 percent and 163 yards per game compared 75 percent and 298 yards per contest in the six SEC games they didn't start together.

Having Allen at safety made a difference but teaming him with a strong safety who could support the run and cover deep passes made UT's defense nearly invincible. This point is further illustrated by the yards Tennessee allowed rushing with Allen and Johnson in tandem. Georgia finished with 56 yards in 29 carries, Ole Miss had 89 yards in 38 carries while Alabama gained 105 yards in 39 carries. That's a total of 250 yards in 106 carries over three games or an average of 32 carries for 83 yards per game. In the six SEC games in which they didn't start together at safeties, Tennessee allowed an average of 151 yards in 37 carries.

Having safeties like Allen and Johnson essentially gave UT five linebackers on the field and four defensive backs. It's also no coincidence that Allen topped UT in solo tackles while Johnson was No. 7 on the team in solitary stops despite only starting five games. It's also fair to say Johnson's shot in the dark turned out to be a shot in the arm for Auburn's title chances.

In light of seven razor close games, two true freshmen QBs and a couple of 1000-yard rushers, the impact of pairing Johnson and Allen at safeties last season got overlooked.

What will be the impact of having neither there in 2005?

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