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Buy or Sell: Defensive weaknesses, offensive line reality

Surprisingly relaxed after a big loss.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

Morale isn’t great around the Tennessee football program right now. A 34-7 loss tends to do that, especially when it’s a team you’re accustomed to beating. In between the panic, the dread, the search for silver linings, it can be pretty easy to forget that Tennessee has their toughest test of the season this Saturday.

Before we get there, we’d like to take a step back and take a gauge of various aspects of the team. We’ve been doing our “Buy or Sell” articles for most of this season so far, to good reader feedback. We apologize for no “Buy or Sell” after the Georgia game—life gets in the way.

At the end of the year we hope to do a “Portfolio” review, where we compile some of our biggest hits in the series, our worst misses, and more.


Middle of field is the biggest defensive weakness

There’s a couple different ways that opponents have attacked the middle of the Tennessee defense. Most will point to the Kentucky game and the Wildcats’ propensity for slants, and as fellow Rocky Top Talk contributor Austin Burlage pointed out, a lot of that was Kentucky simply calling a good game. There’s a couple of adjustments that can be made to prevent those plays from turning into huge gains, but overall it’s not as damning as previously thought.

However, I would submit that Tennessee’s linebackers (namely Quavaris Crouch and Jeremy Banks) were routinely found lacking in pass coverage against South Carolina, Missouri, and Georgia. It seems that opponents are realizing the Volunteers have a weakness in the linebacker unit that Henry To’o To’o cannot fully cover up. I’m not sure how the Volunteers will address it, but it’s become a big enough issue that I’m not sure the coaching staff can ignore it.

Interior run game is fine

The trio of Trey Smith-Brandon Kennedy-Cade Mays has done a good job paving the way for guys like Ty Chandler and Eric Gray to keep the ball moving. In fact, against the Wildcats, Gray and Chandler combined for almost 5.0 yards-per-carry. They had 4.7 yards-per-carry excluding garbage time. Keep in mind, this was accomplished even after Kentucky knew the Volunteers didn’t trust their quarterbacks to throw. No team to this point had near the success that Tennessee did running the ball.


Tackles are playing up to potential

Whatever you can say about the interior line, you have to make a point of excluding the tackles. Simply put, Tennessee’s guards and center have taken steps forward, while the tackles are stuck in 2019 mode. Against Kentucky, it was obvious the Wildcats watched film on Wanya Morris and knew he was the weakest link. His inability to block directly caused a Jarrett Guarantano fumble and multiple pressures. Meanwhile, his counterpart Darnell Wright had similar struggles against Kentucky, albeit he has looked better in past games. Not the case with Morris.

Tennessee is in a tough spot because the easiest solution would be to kick Trey Smith and Cade Mays out to tackle (they’ve done the latter pretty often). But Mays is not a natural tackle and Smith’s value on the interior is too much. At this point it’s a question of coaching. Both Morris and Wright are former 5-stars, and they have had bright spots throughout the beginnings of their Tennessee careers. Yet for some reason they’re struggling to maintain any consistency and are now getting lapped by other linemen. That’s worrying, and we should start wondering if Will Friend is the best guy for the job.

Tight ends

It’s obvious why Tennessee pushed so hard for one of Arik Gilbert and Darnell Washington in the previous recruiting cycle. The only tight end they could trust was Austin Pope, who underwent surgery in the offseason and will likely be out for the entire year. Behind him is...not much. Princeton Fant is the starter right now and looks incapable of holding blocks. He also isn’t much of a threat in the receiving game.

Behind Fant? Well, Sean Brown was a huge project when he signed. Jordan Allen has been in the program for over two years and hasn’t shown anything (and only switched over to tight end last year). Same deal with Jacob Warren.

Thankfully Tennessee has some commits to try and remedy this in the next couple seasons. Hudson Wolfe, Miles Campbell, Roc Taylor, and Trinity Bell are all committed in the 2021 class and could contribute at tight end.

That unfortunately won’t help for the rest of the season. The group is struggling and has no real answer.


Pass rush is declining

The firing of defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh has many theorizing what went wrong with the defensive line. I’m really not sure it’s linked to actual on-field performance. I think the line was playing up to expectations. There was more to it than that.

The Volunteers having little sack production from linemen not named Deandre Johnson is certainly something to be wary of...but keep in mind that the Wildcats threw just 16 passes Saturday, and their quarterback Terry Wilson is known for being hard to bring down. They also have an offensive coordinator who tries to limit the amount of time Wilson spends in the pocket diagnosing the field.

A similar deal existed with Missouri, since their offense likes to keep the quarterback mobile.

I’m not trying to create excuses, but I would wait before declaring the pass rush a disappointment. They’ve seen encouraging plays from other guys like Morven Joseph and Tyler Baron, who could really contribute in this regard as the season winds down.