KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s defense has been decimated by injuries during the first half of the 2016 season, and as the bumps and bruises have piled up, coordinator Bob Shoop’s unit has struggled to limit explosive plays.
The Volunteers are allowing 26.7 points per game and 5.41 yards per play — good for No. 57 nationally.
They’ve struggled tacking, locating the football on downfield passing plays and consistently fitting their gaps in the run game.
In the loss at Texas A&M, the Aggies rolled up 592 yards on Tennessee, including 10 plays over 20 yards.
“Way too many explosive plays,” Volunteer coach Butch Jones said.
“We missed tackles, some miss-fits in gaps, not getting off blocks. Those are thing with Alabama coming in that we have to make sure we improve and get corrected immediately.”
The Crimson Tide rank No. 6 in the country in scoring, averaging 44.8 points a game. They are second in the SEC in long scrimmage plays (over 20-plus yards) and lead the conference with 17 snaps over 40 yards.
Tennessee (5-1, 2-1 SEC) must solve its woes in a hurry if it wants to hang with undefeated Alabama on Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS).
“They’re very explosive,” Jones said.
“Playmakers all over. Big imposing offensive line. They’ve done a great job protecting (quarterback Jalen) Hurts. Hurts has done a tremendous job managing their offense. His running ability adds a whole other element to their offense.”
Part of Tennessee’s issues against Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M has been an inability to make — or limit — explosive plays when an opportunity has been there to do so. Micah Abernathy whiffed on Trevor Knight’s long touchdown run in the fourth quarter, while Malik Foreman got deked at the end of the Georgia game. The Vols survived both mistakes, but for how much longer?
“Explosive plays get you beat,” junior safety Todd Kelly Jr. said.
“Coach Shoop laid it out to us, there were 9 plays that accounted for over 300 yards (against A&M). If you took away those plays, it would’ve looked like we played phenomenal football. … We’re focusing on eliminating explosive plays, just tackling in open space, making sure the ball doesn’t get thrown over our heads. If we do that, we can compete with anybody.”
Ironically, Alabama, the No. 12 defense in the country, has allowed the same number of explosive scrimmage plays (over 20 yards) as Tennessee this season (26). However, the Volunteers have allowed 16 more plays over 10 yards than the Tide.
Jones expressed concern over solving some of the tackling woes, saying it’s difficult to fix such issues midway through a season. Kelly Jr. concurred, explaining that it’s hard to simulate tackling drills in practice and wishing “we had more opportunities to refine that technique.”
“It’s a challenge during the season because very rarely are you in full pads,” Jones said.
“You can practice every drill you have: thudding up, thudding up bags. And we spend an inordinate amount of time, as much time as we spend on tackling is the same thing we spend on taking care of the football on offense.
“A lot of times it’s lunging, being in bad body position, so we make cut-ups of the missed tackles, and we talk about it. We’ll continue to do that. The disappointing thing was at the end of the game, we gave up two bigs runs, and you can’t do that in those types of situations.”
Especially not if you want to beat Alabama on Saturday.