Grade A Defense Carries Day

Given the mounting injuries and other assorted problems on offense as well as those with the kicking game, it could fairly be argued that Tennessee's tenuous hold on the 2005 season is being maintained with little more than duct tape and defense.

Oddly enough, the biggest concern coming into what many anticipated would be a championship campaign was the defensive backfield. However the secondary has turned out to be pleasant surprise with players like Antwan Stewart and Jonathan Hefney performing capably to this point in new positions, and Jonathan Wade stepping up his game since returning from an early injury.

The front seven has lived up to its billing as one of the nation's best and the defense against the run has been dominating. Overall depth on defense is still a concern, but the Vols are gaining valuable experience that should pay off handsomely before the year is through.

Kudos to John Chavis and staff for getting the best out UT's available talent and putting the players in position to make plays. Tennessee's attack has been varied and the blitzes have been well disguised.

The biggest question about the defense is whether it can continue to keep Tennessee in games with only sparse support from the offense? It wasn't enough against Florida when the Vols surrendered just one touchdown. Will it be enough against Georgia and Alabama?

Here's the top to bottom defensive 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 and won't be good enough to defeat a quality opponent. Any grade below 60 is considered failing. Special teams are also included in the defensive grades.

SECONDARY (95) On balance this was the best game by UT's defensive backs all season. Micheal Spurlock was not a great passer, but he was exceptionally quick and he used his athletic ability to buy time as well as break containment. That left the secondary to cover for much more than the standard four seconds which could have also led to many big plays, but the longest completion of the day by Ole Miss was 23 yards. The Rebels had several throws into the end zone that were aptly defended and the Vols ended the game with an interception in the end zone by Corey Campbell. The outstanding interception and touchdown return by Jonathan Wade was probably the play of the day. Jason Allen had seven tackles (six solo) while Hefney added six and Stewart had four with a fumble recovery. There will be tougher tests in coming weeks but UT's air defense looks like it may just be up to the challenge.

LINEBACKERS (94) Active, aggressive and alert, UT's linebacker corps swarmed the ball, made plays and hit with authority. Omar Gaither led Tennessee in tackles with eight, including a sack. He also forced a fumble and broke up a pass in a solid gold performance. Kevin Simon had seven stops (according to statistics) with one stop behind the line of scrimmage. Jason Mitchell added five tackles and Marvin Mitchell came off the bench to contributed three solo stops. Most impressive was the way UT's linebackers reacted to the ball and minimized damage from Spurlock's frequent scrambles. The return of Jerrod Mayo from injury is important to UT's depth and versatility. Will Daniel Brooks become a factor this year or will he redshirt?

DEFENSIVE LINE (89) Tennessee got good production out of its defensive ends Parys Haralson, Xaiver Mitchell and Robert Ayers each recording a sack, but it wasn't a big day numbers wise for the tackles. Justin Harrell had a pair of assists, Jesse Mahelona had one tackle for minus yardage and Tony McDaniel added a solo stop and batted down a pass. Jason Hall and Antonio Reynolds had three tackles each at defensive end. UT's D-line did a good job closing off the inside run, freeing the LBs to make stops, but the ends could have done a better job of containment.

SPECIAL TEAMS (81) Things are improving in terms of kick coverage and returns with Lucas Taylor looking like a potentially potent return specialist. Britton Colquitt averaged 46 yards on two punts, including a 50 yarder, as the freshman appears to be settling into the job. James Wilhoit boomed four kickoffs deep into the end zone and hit a couple of chippy field goals. However he missed one from 44 and had a 51-yard attempt blocked. It was the second place kick Wilhoit has had blocked this season. If the Vols could get Wilhoit on track with his field goal accuracy the kicking game could compensate for a lot of shortages on offense.

OVERALL (92) Another superb outing by the Chief's defensive warriors. The Vols made nine stops behind the line of scrimmage and held Ole Miss to minus yardage rushing until a late drive by the Rebels when the game was on ice. Can UT's defense get any better? The answer is yes, but only if the offense does first.

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