Confidence lacking on Vol D

Tennessee's defense has allowed more than 470 total yards in four games this season. It is giving up yards and points at a school-record pace.

``This defense we've got at Tennessee won't go down as one of our best, I guarantee you that,'' defensive coordinator John Chavis said.

Tennessee's defense might be the first to allow 30 points per game and the second to give up more than 400 yards per game.

Yet, headed into the second weekend in November, the Vols control their fate in the SEC East Division with three conference games remaining. Next up: Arkansas at 12:30 on Saturday.

Chavis knows the challenge of stopping a team that rushes for more than 312 yards in SEC games and leads the league in scoring and total offense. He knows the challenge of trying to contain running backs Darren McFadden (146.2 yards per game) and Felix Jones (9.3 yards per carry), who combined for over 480 rushing yards against South Carolina last Saturday.

``This defense will always be special to me if the season goes down the way we want it to,'' Chavis said.

That means winning out to win the East Division.

One of the disconcerting things about the defense is the inability to stop opponents on third down and get off the field.

``We've got to get stops,'' Chavis said of a defense that ranks near the bottom of the SEC in first downs allowed and three-and-outs while opponents are converting nearly 40 percent on third down.

``That's our responsibility and my responsibility as defensive coordinator to get us off the field. We'll play lights out, then give them (opponent) momentum and we don't have enough confidence to get the momentum back.

``We haven't been able to establish a defensive identity. I don't like telling you that, but that's the truth.''

Finding confidence and an identity might go hand in hand.

Earlier this season, the Vols played aggressive, blitzing with man coverage on the corners. They got burned by California and Florida, then ditched that approach to avert allowing the big plays.

But playing passive hasn't helped. Mississippi State quarterback Wes Carroll had a career passing day. Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson and receiver DJ Hall had career days. South Carolina quarterback Blake Mitchell, receiver Kenny McKinley and running back Cory Boyd had career days.

Louisiana-Lafayette rushed for 234 yards and doesn't have an offensive line or running backs in the class with Arkansas's personnel.

That doesn't bode well for a struggling defense that lacks confidence.

Still, it's a defense that held Georgia's explosive run game to 69 yards.

``We've got a plan and I expect to showcase that Saturday,'' Chavis said of the Arkansas game. ``We'll approach it as an opportunity.''

While the defense has given up chunks of yardage in the last two games – 501 to South Carolina, 364 to Louisiana-Lafayette – it has forced six turnovers and allowed just 31 points.

``I see the defense getting better and better and better,'' Chavis said.

Frankly, Chavis sees more progress than I do.

Chavis praised the play of Xavier Mitchell and Robert Ayers, and said Wes Brown has a chance to be an ``excellent football player.'' He said the defensive tackles have ``made more strides than any group I've seen at Tennessee.''

He said that 75 to 85 percent of the time, linebackers Jerod Mayo and Rico McCoy are playing at an ``All-American level, no question. I think both have tremendous futures.'' He said Ryan Karl has played well now that he's recovered from a summer back injury.

He said true freshman Savion Frazier has a bright future. ``He has a chance to be a big-time linebacker. He has a chance to be as good as any linebacker we've had around here in a while.''

He applauded true freshman safety Eric Berry who has ``great character and intelligence'' and is playing winning football in the SEC. ``I think Eric Berry will end up being the finest defensive back in the SEC. … Five weeks ago, he was playing off talent. Now he's playing off technique and he's playing much faster.''

He said true freshman corner Brent Vinson is capable of being outstanding. ``He's getting close to where we want him to be, and that's an in-your-face defender,'' he said.

Chavis also likes the future for true freshman corner Dennis Rogan of Knoxville.

He said true freshman defensive tackle Dan Langley has a chance to be a good player and that Ben Martin and Chris Walker ``may be as good a pair (of defensive ends) as I've seen since I've been here.''

Chavis painted a bright future for Tennessee's defense.

But the immediate future is of great concern. Arkansas leads the league in scoring, total offense and rushing.

Arkansas' run game has benefited lately from the return of 6-foot-6 wide receiver Marcus Monk, slowed the first two months by a pair of preseason knee surgeries. His presence keeps defenses from loading too many in the box to stop the run.

Monk had eight catches for 137 yards against UT last year.

``We know who he is,'' Chavis said, adding playfully: ``Every time they throw to him is one less time we've got to tackle those running backs.''

UT has two corners that stand 6-feet-2 and 6-feet. The previous starters were both under 6-feet. Chavis was asked why UT doesn't have taller corners to guard against 6-6 receivers.

Chavis said the average height of an NFL starting corner is 5-8 ¾

``Big guys don't have the hips to turn and move,'' he said. ``I'd love to have guys 6-2 that can run and lock ‘em down. When you find them, they're on offense catching the ball. Those offensive coaches won't let you have ‘em.''

Earlier this season, Auburn shut down Arkansas' run game, allowing the Razorbacks seven points. Yet, the Hogs ran wild against South Carolina.

A major difference: a healthy McFadden. Arkansas rarely ran McFadden out of its Wildcat package – McFadden at quarterback – against Auburn but did it 16 to 18 times against Carolina.

``Some of it had to do with scheme,'' Chavis said. ``And South Carolina has had difficulty at times stopping the run all year long. Arkansas had a tremendous amount of big plays (in the Wildcat package against USC).''

One of UT's main goals is stopping the big plays …. and containing McFadden and Jones … and shutting down Monk …. and forcing three-and-outs.

It's a huge challenge for a defense that lacks confidence and is trying to find its identity.


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