Backs to the wall

Showing up for Tuesday's media day, Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis stood with his back to a wall while fielding questions from a circle of reporters at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex.

The symbolism was hard to overlook. Like the rest of the Vol football program, Chavis has his "back to the wall" in a very literal sense after a putrid performance last Saturday in a 41-17 loss at Alabama dropped the team's record to 4-3.

Given the heat Chavis is taking from media and fans alike, he could have come out swinging Tuesday afternoon. Instead, he came out joking. Noting that South Carolina ranks dead last among SEC teams in sacks allowed (26), while Tennessee ranks dead last in sacks recorded (9), the coordinator quipped that this weekend's game shapes up as "a heck of a match-up. We'll see if we can rush the passer and see if they can protect."

Given that Chavis' defense has been generally inept this season, the light-hearted remark caught the assembled reporters a little off guard.

"Sometimes you need to bring in a little bit of humor," the coordinator said, later adding: "I'm not going to walk around with a cloud over my head. I know we're not playing as well as we need to play right now but I'm going to dang-sure be upbeat. I'm not going to let that (dissatisfaction) translate into how I respond to the players. If you do, you're going to create more problems."

That's probably a wise move. God knows there's enough negativity among the fans these days without having the coaching staff adding to the unpleasantness.

"We're going to get some things corrected and we're going to be positive about it," Chavis said. "We're going to coach smarter ... try to. I think I can coach a little smarter – you may disagree – but we're going to do some things better, and I'm going to be positive about it. I'm not going to walk around and think the sky is falling."

Head coach Phillip Fulmer understands that his program has its back to the wall following the awful showing in Tuscaloosa. He recognizes that getting the Vols ready for a peak effort Saturday against South Carolina is crucial.

"You try to get your team ready to play every game, period," he said. "They're intelligent young men and they realize that both teams can be in the divisional race, win the division. Now we've got to do our part.

"It's very important that we win Saturday … not look past Saturday … take care of everything we can control. It's one of those games that's really important."

Tennessee has had its back to the wall before, of course. The Vols lost their SEC opener 59-20 at Florida, suffering the added humiliation of having the beat-down nationally televised. Incredibly, they bounced back from that debacle to win three games in a row, including a 35-14 pasting of Georgia.

Sophomore receiver Austin Rogers believes the players will bounce back from the loss at Bama with the same determination they showed in bouncing back from the loss at Florida.

"We can't afford any more losses," he said somberly. "We've got to win out to give ourselves a shot.... Anybody can come out of the (SEC) East right now. Everybody (in the division) has two losses. Anything can happen, so we have to come out with our A-game every week."

Bringing their A-game may be difficult for the Vols, considering the magnitude of last Saturday's meltdown. Fulmer is optimistic, however.

"In athletics, like life, it's about meeting challenges and making the most of each day that you have," he said. "Certainly, we know as a staff and as a football team where our challenges are. We know where our strengths are. We've got an incredible group of young men, fighters with character and good leadership on this football team. There are a lot of reasons to be excited.

"We certainly realize we let one get away (at Alabama), but we were able to get that behind us on Sunday, and we look forward to moving forward.... We're taking the approach that we are playing for a divisional championship this Saturday and each Saturday that follows."

Moving forward may be difficult for Vol defenders who were shredded by Alabama's offense last Saturday and blasted by Tennessee's fans in the days since. Chavis understands this.

"We‘ve got to find a way to get them motivated and keep them motivated," he said. "Certainly it's a lot easier when you're winning. It's a lot easier when folks are saying good things about you.

"But if you're made out of the right stuff when your back's against the wall ... then by God you've got to be ready to lift yourself up and get it done. We've got great character on this football team, and I can guarantee you 99 percent of them will be ready."


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