KNOXVILLE – There’s been plenty of blame to go around on Tennessee’s defense, a unit that is giving an up average of over 40 points per game during the Vols’ current three-game losing streak.
The secondary has missed tackles and taken bad angles. The linebackers have failed to keep mobile quarterbacks and running backs from getting to the edge. But in football, it often comes back to the guys up front.
And Tennessee’s defensive line hasn’t gotten the job done recently. The sacks and tackles for loss have virtually disappeared.
"I wish I could just point to one thing and say it's that, but it's not,” said defensive line coach Steve Stripling. “One play it might be that we're out of our gap, one play it might that we're not able to make a play. Going back to the Missouri game, there were three or four times we were within a step of the quarterback and we don't make the play.”
Those plays Stripling referenced were happening regularly in September when the Vols were playing their best football of the season. During a two-game stretch – an overtime loss to Georgia and a victory over South Carolina – the defensive front accounted for a combined total of five sacks and eight tackles for loss.
Now in the midst of a three-game losing streak, the front four has recorded just ½ of a tackle for loss over the last three weeks and no sacks. Comparatively speaking, that’s less over a three-week period for an entire unit than cornerback Cameron Sutton had in one game against Auburn (2 TFLs, 1 sack).
"It's been frustrating because there were earlier games that I thought as a defensive line we were being consistent and accountable," said Stripling. "Now we've had a couple games where we haven't been.”
Added senior defensive end Corey Miller, “You notice with games against South Alabama, South Carolina, and Georgia, it was a have-to hungry, want-to-get-out-there mentality. We have to have that mentality every game."
There are some outside factors working against this group. Reserve defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry, a regular in the defensive tackle rotation early in the season, has missed most of the year with a knee injury. He might not be back this year. The same is true for D-tackle Maurice Couch, who was recently ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA. UT is appealing, but time is running out.
Others such as Marlon Walls and Jacques Smith have been banged up or have missed some time. But those aren’t excuses Stripling wants to lean on in. He’s looking for consistency from the players he puts out there.
"It's not one thing; it's a multitude of things,” he said. “This mature senior group is all-in and their attitudes are great, but that does not change the fact that we are not consistent right now."
Growth as an entire defensive unit likely won't come until the Vols find that consistency up front.
• Out: QB Justin Worley, LT Tiny Richardson, TE Alex Ellis, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, WR Jacob Carter, WR Cody Blanc, DT Trevarris Saulsberry, DE Malik Brown
• Non-contact jersey: TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph, S LaDarrell McNeil, WR Drae Bowles, DB Geraldo Orta, CB Devaun Swafford
• Tennessee is beginning to turn some of its attention to its next opponent, Vanderbilt. Some of the scout teamers were in black jerseys on Wednesday. Walk-on wide receiver Dylan West is simulating star Vandy wide receiver Jordan Matthews.
• Receiver Josh Smith, who has been much maligned for his drops in game action, made the best catch of open practice – a leaping grab where he got both feet down on a 15-yard out pattern.
• With the weather still hovering near the 30s, the Vols remained indoors on Wednesday.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga