KNOXVILLE – If there’s any one unit in all of college football that might be down on itself, there’s an argument that Tennessee’s defense would be among the most likely candidates.
The Vols were absolutely shredded at Oregon.
The Duck piled up 687 total yards on offense – the second-most ever against a UT defense. The most yardage ever given up by a UT defense? That would be the 721 yards Troy put up on the Vols in 2012, a defense that featured several of the same starters as this year.
It would be understandable if this unit’s confidence were shot.
“We have to learn from it, but at the same time we have to forget about it and move on,” said defensive end Jordan Williams.
“We have to prove that that wasn’t us,” added safety Brian Randolph of the performance at Oregon. “We have to go out there this Saturday and prove that we’re a better defense than that. It was very hard for us, especially the DBs. We were sitting in the film room and you could see it in our face, everybody was down, but we can’t get too down on ourselves.”
This is somewhat of a new experience for Randolph. The redshirt sophomore missed a majority of 2012 with a torn ACL. His return, along with a simplified 4-3 scheme, helped lift the confidence of a group that was among the worst in the nation last year.
It appeared that the unit had made some strides before Oregon. It shut down an overmatched Austin Peay squad. It forced seven turnovers in a convincing win over Western Kentucky. But the speed, depth and experience of the Ducks exposed the Vols. A lot of little mistakes really added up for the Vols.
“We didn't do the small details, the small details that win,” said coach Butch Jones. “We gave up 72 yards and lost leverage on defense. We had way too many mental errors.
"I've talked about eye discipline, you're probably sick and tired of hearing me talk about ‘see a little, see a lot,’ but I think this game really exposed it. Lack of discipline with our eyes, staring in the backfield, individuals coming off on man coverage, not doing their job, just way too sloppy.”
Jones counted 16 missed tackles in that contest. That’s not even counting the plays where the Vols weren’t even close enough to attempt a tackle. Thankfully for UT, the Vols likely won’t see that level of overall athleticism again this season. They will, however, begin their SEC schedule this week, meaning there will be few breaks the rest of the way.
That starts with a Florida team that is looking for its identity on offense, but still has enough size, physicality and speed to give UT trouble. It'll be the first chance for UT to rebound and try to get some of that confidence back.
"They're extremely talented, physical, and very active, offensively, playmakers all over the place, another dual-threat quarterback [Jeff Driskel] who can run, who can pass,” Jones said. “A little bit different schematically [from Oregon], but a lot of the same similarities as well, in terms of different reads for your linebackers, their eye discipline, play-action, unbalanced sets, and getting the ball in the hands of their playmakers.”
• Out: WR Devrin Young, TE Alex Ellis, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, TE Justin Meredith, TE Joseph Ayres, CB Riyahd Jones, WR Ryan Jenkins, LB Raiques Crump, WR Ryan Jenkins, K George Bullock, OL Mack Crowder, WR Johnathon Johnson
• Limited: TE A.J. Branisel, WR Pig Howard, LB Brent Brewer, LB Dontavis Sapp, S Max Arnold, CB Michael F. Williams, S Byron Moore, S Brian Randolph
Defensive end Corey Vereen was back in a regular, orange practice jersey after being in a non-contact jersey last week. The Vols are optimistic that he might make his season debut against Florida on Saturday, but there’s no official word on his status.
• At least for the limited open portion of practice on Tuesday, Justin Worley took the first-team snaps while the Vols walked through plays. Nathan Peterman continued to work with the second unit. Jones said the quarterback battle will progress throughout the week.
• Scout teamers were wearing blue jerseys with helmets that had Florida Gators decals on them to help simulate what the Vols will see on Saturday. Florida’s fight song and other common Gators cheers were also piped in over the speakers on Tuesday.
• Walk-on quarterback Tyler Page had the task of simulating Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel. All four scholarship quarterbacks – Worley, Peterman, Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson – are, according to Jones, competing for playing time this week in practice.
• Freshman receiver Paul Harris had a rough drill early in practice. He dropped multiple passes and got a not-so-subtle reminder from receivers coach Zach Azzanni that he still has a lot of work to do.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga