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10 Questions for 2015 #2 - Can Tennessee Stop Teams Who Will Run Right At Them?

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Can young defensive tackles and linebackers get off the field when the Vols need the ball back in the fourth quarter?

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(This was originally question #3 on our countdown, but the season-ending injury to Marcus Jackson bumped the offensive line question to earlier this week.)

Last month Nathanael looked at the new challenge facing the 2015 Vol defense.  One year after facing many of the SEC's most productive wide receivers, Tennessee's schedule this fall will bring them a number of the league's best running backs.  Here are the SEC's leading returning running backs:

  1. Nick Chubb, Georgia - 119.0 ypg
  2. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas - 91.5 ypg
  3. Alex Collins, Arkansas - 84.6 ypg
  4. Leonard Fournette, LSU - 79.5 ypg
  5. Russell Hansbrough, Missouri - 77.4 ypg
  6. Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt - 75.5 ypg
  7. Derrick Henry, Alabama - 70.7 ypg
  8. Jalen Hurd, Tennessee - 69.1 ypg
  9. Stanley Williams, Kentucky - 48.6 ypg
You see the issue:  the Vols will face seven of those nine this fall.  Three of last year's five best rushing teams in yards per carry (Georgia 1st at 6.04 ypc, Alabama 4th at 5.10, Arkansas 5th at 5.09) will face a Tennessee defense which finished eighth in the SEC in yards per carry allowed last fall.

However, those numbers are a little inflated.  South Carolina had a 70 yard touchdown run when the Vols had only 10 men on the field.  And many of Iowa's 244 yards rushing came with the backups in and the Vols up 42-7 in the third quarter.  Other than those two, only Georgia with Todd Gurley averaged more than five yards per carry against a 2014 Vol defense that had the makings of being solid against the run.

The 2015 unit could be stronger at defensive tackle, but must replace A.J. Johnson's 101 tackles at middle linebacker.  Butch Jones says...

...but one of Tennessee's most pressing defensive issues is figuring out who that second linebacker will be before they even start worrying who the third man would be.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin also had 101 tackles last fall, making him one of the Vols' most valuable players this fall.  Curt Maggitt earned preseason All-SEC honors at linebacker, but many expect him to see a majority of snaps at defensive end this fall (though I have wondered if the progression of guys like Kyle Phillips might make John Jancek rethink this strategy; does getting the best 11 on the field mean putting Maggitt at linebacker or defensive end?).

After that, we've got the unproven guys with lots of stars - true freshman Darrin Kirkland, redshirt freshman Dillon Bates - or, well, more unproven guys.  After JRM Tennessee has eight scholarship linebackers, and only Kenny Bynum is an upperclassman (thanks, Dooley).  Gavin Bryant and walk-on Colton Jumper are other names we've heard in the middle linebacker race in the second week of camp.  Then you've also got more outside linebacker reserves like Cortez McDowell and Elliot Berry who could be a bigger part of the picture when the Vols line up in a more traditional 4-3.

And that's the big question here:  expect Tennessee to play plenty of nickel, but what will the defense look like when the opposition brings two tight ends or, gasp, the I-formation?  And how much of that will Tennessee see in its most important games?

The most dangerous rushing opponents - Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama - the Vols will see consecutively in October, with a blessed bye week between the Dawgs and Tide.  It's not just a question of is Tennessee talented enough defensively to win a game against a run-heavy team, it's are the Vols deep enough and consistent enough to win these games in consecutive weeks?  If Georgia needs to move the chains in the fourth quarter and just feeds Nick Chubb one week after Arkansas just fed Williams and Collins, will Tennessee's defense be able to get off the field?

This feels like a question the Vols are still one year away from answering really well.  That doesn't mean Tennessee can't beat Arkansas, Georgia, or Alabama.  But it does mean Tennessee's offense will need to be especially sharp on those days to protect its defense and, ideally, put the opposition in a position to have to rely more on downfield passing later in the game instead of just grinding it out.

And here above all, Tennessee needs to stay healthy.  One loss on the offensive line already has Tennessee putting true freshmen in harms way.  The Vols will need all the bodies they can get at defensive tackle and linebacker to give themselves a better chance against the best rushing teams in this league.