Key matchup

Anyone who watched Tennesse's season-opening defeat of California saw that young linebackers Jerod Mayo, Ryan Karl and Rico McCoy can flat-out fly to the football. They may be moving at a little slower pace this weekend against Air Force, however. The triple-option can do that to you.

The flex-bone attack Air Force utilizes requires defenders to do considerable reading and reacting. It's called "assignment football," and it means Mayo, Karl and McCoy must be a little more cautious and a little less rambunctious against the Falcons Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

"The option ties you down a little bit more because you've basically got three phases," defensive coordinator John Chavis says. "And you've got to make sure you carry out your assignment in all of those phases."

Those three phases are: (1) the handoff to the fullback, (2) the quarterback keeper and (3) the option pitch. If you ignore the fullback and he gets the handoff, he'll gain five or six yards up the gut. If you play the quarterback too loosely, he'll turn upfield for a nice gain. If you attack the quarterback too quickly and leave the pitch man uncovered, a big play is virtually guaranteed.

Making the task more difficult for UT's young linebackers is the fact Air Force quarterback Shaun Carney is a slippery runner who is expert at operating the option.

"They've got a quarterback that understands it and does a tremendous, tremendous job of getting 'em in the right plays based on your alignments upfront and making the right decisions," Chavis says.

The key for Tennessee's speedy young linebackers is to play their assignments without getting TOO cautious. That's a concern whenever you're facing an unorthodox offense.

"It always is a little bit," Chavis says. "But that's what they're paying us for – to get 'em ready to play – and that's what we've got to go do. Our kids have been into it (flex-bone preparations) if that's an indication."

Although the coordinator wants his young linebackers to follow their assignments, he believes they can do so and play just as aggressively against Air Force as they did against Cal.

"They can still do that," he says.

That doesn't mean he's going to turn them loose, however.

"We don't have any defenses where we just completely turn them loose," the coordinator said. "They always play assignment football."

Not to the extent they will THIS week.

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