Last year, Tennessee football linebackers had a huge issue in containment. Ole Miss Rebels quarterback Matt Corrall rushed for 195 yards. Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young had 42 yards, his best rushing performance of that year.
Even Kentucky Wildcats quarterback Will Levis, a drop-back passer, had 47 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns against them. This year, though, it’s all changed.
Young had minus-four yards. Levis had minus-22 yards. He wasn’t even able to throw for 100 yards because the linebackers were always in position. Brian Jean-Mary said the success starts with the run.
“Defensively, we still always hang our hat on trying to stop the run” he said in a Tuesday press conference. “You don’t ever just say you’re going to take one aspect away, but it always starts with run defense with most defenses, so we want to make sure we can take the run away.”
They certainly did that in this one. Kentucky averaged just under three yards a carry. Detractors will point to Chris Rodriguez Jr. getting hurt, but he had just 15 carries for 64 yards.
That’s an average of 4.3 yards a carry, a full yard below his seasonal average. Crucial to that, though, was the Vols’ linebackers playing assignment football. Jean-Mary said it’s a team effort.
“It’s obviously building a run wall,” he said. “We want to have every gap covered, all of our assignments handled, whether you’re the force player or you’re a field player, on every run play, and we try to make that a big point of emphasis, and I think our run wall, starting with our D-line, has been so much better.”
A huge part of that improvement is obviously the development of returning starters Aaron Beasley and Jeremy Banks, particularly Beasley. However, Juwan Mitchell returning to health was another part of that.
Mitchell finished with a team-leading eight tackles in the game. He also had one of the Vols’ three interceptions, caused by a Doneiko Slaughter. Still, Jean-Mary noted he had to be in position to make all the plays he made.
“We had to do a good job of getting off of blocks, and he did a great job of finding the football, but it’s also not just finding it. It’s getting the ball on the ground, and he did an even better job there,” he said. “I’ve always said Juwan’s super talented. The big thing was just getting him healthy and getting him in a rhythm where he could go out there and play and show what type of player he was, so it’s a combination of both.”
Now, Tennessee football faces another test. The Georgia Bulldogs are 8-0, defending national champions and still have their quarterback returning from that team.
Stetson Bennett has just nine touchdowns, but he only has three interceptions. Also, he’s averaging over 293 yards a game and nearly nine yards an attempt.
“He makes some big-time throws, and he’s able to extend some plays,” Jean-Mary said of Bennett. “He’s, to us, one of the better quarterbacks we’ve seen so far this year, and I know we’ve seen some really good quarterbacks.”
Last year, Bennett was 17-of-29 for 213 yards and a touchdown against the Vols. He also ran eight times for 40 yards and a touchdown, continuing that tradition.
In addition to the containment factor, which has improved, the Vols also have to contain tight end Brock Bowers, who has 31 catches for a team-leading 537 yards and three touchdowns. Last year, he had two catches for 23 yards against the Vols.
“He’s one of the big pieces of their offense,” Jean-Mary said of Bowers. “It’s his versatility. He can line up anywhere on the field.”
Obviously, containing Bennett and keeping an eye on Bowers will be crucial for Tennessee football, and going back to containment, Jean-Mary stressed field awareness. That’s where the improvement has been key.
“Field awareness always starts with, obviously, your preparation and understanding what formation that the offense is in versus the defense that you’re in,” he said. “You always want to anticipate how people are going to try to attack you.”