You can call it disappointing.
But you'd better not call it soft ... not around Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer.
"We weren't soft in the last 10 minutes," he insisted during a break in preparations for Saturday's home opener vs. UAB. "There were a couple of coverage mistakes but we weren't soft by any means. We've gone back (on film) and studied the heck out of that."
Maybe ... but the coverage didn't appear to be nearly as tight down the stretch as it had been previously.
After completing just 13 of 29 passes for 121 yards through the first three quarters, UCLA's Kevin Craft riddled the Vols for 12 completions in 14 attempts for 138 yards in the final quarter. In the process he directed touchdown drives of 80 and 70 yards that turned a 14-10 deficit into a 24-21 lead and, ultimately, a 27-24 overtime victory.
Most Vol fans understood why Tennessee played soft coverage in 2007. Minus Demetrice Morley (suspended), Roshaun Fellows (dismissed), Antonio Gaines (Game 2 ACL tear) and Marsalous Johnson (Game 7 ACL tear), the Vols were reduced to playing mostly first-year freshmen and junior college transfers in the secondary.
This season was supposed to be different. With five of the top six '07 defensive backs returning – and Morley back from academic exile – the secondary appeared capable of dominating. It did just that in the first half vs. UCLA, accounting for three interceptions.
But in the second half – particularly the fourth quarter – Vol cornerbacks seemed to back off a bit, opening up some room for Craft to hit short underneath routes to receivers, tight ends and running backs.
Given all of the talent and experience in Tennessee's secondary, do the Vols have the ability to play tight press coverage?
"I think we do," Fulmer said. "You're basically talking about corner. When Dennis (Rogan) went out that became a little bit more of a concern but Marsalous (Johnson) did a nice job in the ball game. If we have everybody out there that we hope to have out there, I think we can play some tight man-to-man coverage."
Fulmer inadvertently suggested that Vol corners were playing off the ball more than they were supposed to at times in the UCLA game.
"It's amazing," he said. "In practice, we're up there (in the receiver's face) and being just as brave as we can possibly be. Then in the game, that's real. That thing gets thrown over your head, then ..."
He didn't finish the sentence.