Breather helps Vols get faster
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. --- Tennessee's defensive players and coaches see a faster, more athletic unit heading into Friday's Taxslayer Bowl vs. Iowa.
And not necessarily due to great improvement over the last month. It has more to do with rest.
"I think the time off for them to heal, you get those thumbs that are jammed, the shoulders that are aching, the knees and all those things. Getting some time to rehab and heal up is huge," defensive coordinator John Jancek said.
The challenge for Jancek and his defense has been the cumulative effect of the large number of snaps taken by a small number of players, which is why the month of rest has been beneficial for the "overachieving" defense.
Opposing offenses have run 826 snaps this season. The defensive tackle position has been a rotation of basically three bodies. It's been predominantly four players at defensive end. There is essentially no rotation at the second level at linebacker and in the back end, aside from Todd Kelly Jr., there's been no real rotation in the secondary.
"Our lack of depth throughout the season and the volume of reps the starters had to take, we certainly needed a bit of a breather since that last ball game," Jancek said. "I think they have bounced back. I think they have done a good job of taking care of their bodies. They had a good first practice down here and we have to wrap it up with the last couple of opportunities on the practice field to get ready for the game."
Head coach Butch Jones admits his team looks a bit quicker thanks to the rest and also said had the Vols had to play a month ago, then they would have been limited with some key players.
"I think it's on an individual basis," Jones said. "Some individuals are still nursing some nagging injuries, where some other players have really benefited from some time off. I do think overall our team speed has improved, but I do think it's a case-by-case basis.
"Curt Maggitt, if we would have had to play the game after Vanderbilt he would not have been able to play. So I think the extensive time that he's had off has helped him."
Jones also noted the time off was significant for cornerback Cam Sutton.
Sophomore linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin has 88 tackles this season playing nearly every defensive snap and playing on multiple special teams units. The Clarksville native said his body feels the best it's felt since August thanks to the rest and thanks to the work in the weight room with head strength coach Dave Lawson.
"I feel great," Reeves-Maybin said. "It feels like the beginning of the season again. My legs feel fresh. My body is healthier and I'm 100-percent for the game.
"We have been in the weight room with Coach Lawson almost every day. We have worked on recovering our bodies, getting our weaknesses back up. There are some guys still a little nicked up from the season, but overall I think we are a healthy team."
MANNING THE MIDDLE
For the Vol defense in defending the Iowa offense described by many as a patient running attack the play of the middle linebacker position will be critical. With A.J. Johnson's career with the Vols over, the burden in the middle falls to freshman Jakob Johnson and redshirt-sophomore Kenny Bynum. Jancek said the two Florida natives have been pushing each other this month and he expects both will play.
"They have competed well," Jancek offered. "They have pushed each other. The have gotten in there and done the best they can. I know they are excited to be back playing in their home city.
"They will both play. It will just be a matter of how many plays in a row their offense generates. Those things come into play during the game as to how we sub."
Bynum came on in relief of Johnson in the second half in the Vols' bowl-eligibility win against Vanderbilt as Johnson appeared to struggle at times in defending a Vanderbilt running attack that closely resembles Iowa's.