Where's the pass rush?

Tennessee's pass rush must've overslept last Saturday because it was a no-show for the 12:30 opener against Alabama-Birmingham.

That was perhaps an even bigger surprise than the third-ranked Vols' scant seven-point victory margin. After all, the Vol pass rush had been ferocious in preseason scrimmages. Even defensive coordinator John Chavis conceded as much.

"The first scrimmage our guys did a tremendous job," he said. Even so, he said his troops "certainly had a lot more pressure in the last two."

If the Vols could exert that kind of pressure against a veteran UT offensive line that features two seniors (Cody Douglas, Albert Toeaina), two standout juniors (Arron Sears, Rob Smith) and a talented redshirt freshman (Ramon Foster), they projected to run right through UAB's offensive front on their way to quarterback Darrell Hackney.

It didn't happen, though. Tennessee recorded just one sack against the Blazers (an eight-yarder by tackle Jesse Mahelona) and three hurries (one each by Mahelona, end Jason Hall and linebacker Jason Mitchell). That was it. As a result, Hackney completed 27 of 38 passes for 282 yards and a touchdown.

One factor that surely limited Tennessee's pass rush in Game 1was the Vols' inexperience at safety. Junior Antwan Stewart was making his first-ever start at strong safety, as was sophomore Jonathan Hefney at free safety. The chief backup, true freshman Demetrice Morley, was playing in his first-ever college game.

One way to protect inexperienced defensive backs is to play zone coverage and rush only the front four, so the linebackers can help cover pass receivers. Tennessee did this frequently last fall because it was starting two freshmen at cornerback (Hefney and Roshaun Fellows).

"We had to do a lot of that last year because we were forced into playing a lot of zone … a lot more than we normally play," Chavis said. "And that's OK. I've always said that we're going to do what our guys do best. That's what we did best last year.

"If we can do that (play zone) and not give up big plays, that's fine. I don't have an ego that we have to be one type of defense and that alone. We're going to try and do what they do best."

Zone coverage was what the 2004 Vols did best and it may be what the 2005 Vols do best, as well. Consider this: Although the defense surrendered 282 passing yards to UAB, only two pass plays gained 20 yards or more. The bend-but-don't-break philosophy goes against Chavis' natural inclination but the bottom line is this: Tennessee limited UAB to 10 points and won the game. That means we'll probably see more four-man rush and more zone coverage in Game 2 at Florida on Sept. 17. But don't bet the house on it. Chavis loves surprises, especially when he's the one springing them.

"You have to mix it up," he said. "You have to do a little of the unexpected from time to time."

Translation: He may blitz like crazy against the Gators, creating more sack opportunities but also leaving the defensive backs to fend for themselves. With the Chief, you just never know.


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