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October 22, 2013
Steve Stripling has been preaching to his defensive linemen since Day 1. Use your hands. Dip your shoulder. Create a corner. Reduce surface area.
Whatever detail it may be, Tennessee's first-year defensive line coach has hounded his pass rushers all the way down to the second, down to the step.
It's finally started to click the last two games.
The Vols created four quarterback hits and Corey Vereen had a sack against Georgia. Saturday they hit South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw three times and sacked him four more times.
"Coach Strip did a great job this spring letting us know we're just one step away from the quarterback," fifth-year senior Marlon Walls said.
"I think we took heed to that. [We] finally started to do the little things he's been teaching us to do --- like reducing your shoulder, cutting the corner a little harder, creating a corner for yourself."
Walls may have more credibility than any of Tennessee's defensive linemen in giving praise to Stripling.
For his entire career, dating all the way back to 2009, he had one sack entering his redshirt senior season. He had 2.5 against South Carolina alone. He has 4.5 (for a combined loss of 21 yards) for the season.
"I thought he really set the tone and the temperament for our defensive front on Saturday with his energy level," Butch Jones said Monday.
"Effort. It's the effort he's been giving," Corey Miller said of Walls. "I never doubt him, that every week he's going to bring his all. It definitely showed up last week. All the sacks he made were effort plays where he continued to the football."
Miller himself had only three sacks in his first three years. He has two through seven games this season. With 19 total tackles, he's already set a single-season best a little over halfway through the schedule.
"It makes you hungrier, makes you want to get more sacks," Miller said. "Coach Strip teaches us all the time to use our hands, watch our keys, do whatever it takes to get to the quarterback. And it's definitely helping us with our quarterback points.
"We've definitely been confident that we can get there, it's a matter of keeping our confidence and having the right mindset coming into each game."
BIG DAN IS ANGRY
Miller said after practice Tuesday that you wouldn't like Dan McCullers when he's angry. South Carolina probably wouldn't argue with that.
McCullers had six tackles --- behind only AJ Johnson's eight on the tackle chart --- including 2.5 tackles for loss and half a sack to his credit in the win over South Carolina.
Monday Jones called it the "best game since we've been here" for McCullers.
"He pushed the pocket," Jones said during his weekly press conference Monday. "He played with a higher level of physicality and effort that we expect."
The reason for 'Big' Dan's big numbers? To be frank, he was pissed off.
"Dan has it in him," Miller said of McCullers. "No matter what people see in him, he has it in him, he's always had it in him. He's got that little streak.
"When he gets angry, I don't want to be around him. I'd hate to be an offensive line when he gets mad."
"Dan can do whatever Dan wants to do if he puts his mind to it," Miller continued. "And when he gets a little mad, you see what he can do."
So what exactly got McCullers worked up Saturday? Miller wouldn't say.
"I can't tell you. I don't want to even ask him, he might get mad at me."
As for what to do to push McCullers' buttons, Miller was a little more open.
"Talk some trash to him, tell him he ain't doing nothing. Tell him he's not playing hard. He gets frustrated and then it's show time."
Jacques Smith said he does much of the same.
"Sometimes I tease Dan a little bit," Smith said. "I just poke him and nudge him, hit him to get him fired up a little bit. Dan, he's a big creature. He's just a monster. When he turns on, nobody can stop him.
"That's been our goal all season. Just turn Dan on whenever we can, no matter how it is. Every Saturday we seem to get him fired up. Last Saturday you definitely saw it, he was fired up and made some big-time plays for loss for us. I'm pretty sure this weekend when we play the red team he's going to be fired up."
As for who pushes those buttons best?
"Alex Bullard," Smith said. "I'm pretty sure some guys have got some stories to tell you about that."
Alabama should provide more than enough of measuring stick to judge just how much Tennessee's defensive line has progressed under Stripling.
The Tide is third in the Southeastern Conference in sacks allowed (7) and fifth in the league in rushing (211.7 yards per game).
"Every week is a measuring stick and a measuring tool," Jones said Tuesday. "They have a great offensive line. They're very physical, they protect the quarterback exceptionally well."
The Kouandjio brothers make up the left side of the Alabama line, with 6-foot-6, 310-pound Cyrus Kouandjio, a former Rivals 5-Star, at tackle and 6-foot-5, 315-pound Arie Kouandjio, a former 4-Star prospect, at guard.
Ryan Kelly (6-5, 290) is at center, next to Anthony Steno (6-3, 309) at right guard and Austin Shepherd (6-5, 315) at tackle.
"The way I look at athletic teams is the amount of players they have on the ground, and they have very few players on the ground," Jones said. "They're physical, they play with a mentality, they finish plays, they're great in the run game and they're very good in the throw game. It's going to be our stiffest challenge to date.
"We'll know a little bit more after the game where we're at."
Miller said it's about taking the sack resurgence the Vols found over the last two home games on the road, into a hostile Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
"You have to understand the two games we played very well in are home games, and now, what we have to do is re-focus our minds and take it on the road," Miller said. "Re-establish that great defense we're playing, re-establish the consistent offense that we're playing. Try to get a win in Alabama."
Jones got after his defensive ends early in Tuesday's practice, shouting over the practice-field microphone that they'd get to see "what real tackles" are like this week.
"He just came up on us about it today," Miller said. " those guys are talented. It's going to take everything we can bring to the table to get a win down there."
Alabama's seven sacks allowed is one spot ahead of Tennessee. The Vols are fourth in the league with eight given up.
Jacques Smith said, if anything, it's going against the likes of Tiny Richardson and Ja'Wuan James everyday on Haslam Field that has the Vols prepared for the challenge waiting in Tuscaloosa.
"I'm more inward focused on our team," Smith said. "I look at our offensive line, I feel like they're one of the best in the nation.
"Going against those guys every single day, day in and day out, they make our defensive line better. It's shown since Day 1 of camp and all throughout the season."
Marlon Walls said just keep feeding him the statistics.
"Whenever you're a competitor, you love to hear those guys only give up so many sacks a year, that's our drive this year," Walls said. "We're just going to try to get after those guys and do our best to get to [Alabama quarterback AJ] McCarron."
'THE RED TEAM'
Butch Jones referred to Alabama by name just once during his post-practice press conference Tuesday. That was in response to a question about he and his players referring to the Tide as 'the red team' on the practice field.
"We know who they are," Jacques Smith simply put it. "They're the red team."
The message was as simple as that, too. The opponent Saturday, being the top-ranked and two-time defending national champion notwithstanding, is just another football team.
"It's the pink elephant in the room," Corey Miller said. "You know what they bring to the table, you know how good they are. But at the same time, they're guys just like we are. We put our shoes on just like they do. We practice just like they do.
"Even though they're a great team and they have great coaches and do things well, they're a team just like we are."
Marlon Walls said a broad line is drawn between fear and respect.
"I know that Alabama week is the week you strap it on," he said. "You gotta give those guys the respect they deserve, on the winning streak they're on, how physical they are.
"You never fear anybody," Walls added. "They put their shoulder pads on just like you do.
"Also, [use it] as motivation. You understand if you don't come out with it, those guys will try to put you on their back."
When asked what facing 'the red team' means, Miller didn't mince words.
"Everything. One of those teams you just don't like, you never had any love for them. Every time [they're] on the schedule, you know what time it is."