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'Build a wall': How Tennessee plans to fix its rush defense

It sounds so simple.

How does Tennessee solve a problem that’s plagued its defense for three years now?

“We’ve got to just focus on our gaps and just build a wall,” linebacker Daniel Bituli said.

The Alamo had less cracks than Tennessee’s rushing defense, but the Vols are hoping to fix a leaky front-seven as they aim to find three more victories to reach bowl eligibility.

Last Saturday, South Carolina became the latest SEC foe to run roughshod over Tennessee, gaining 224 yards on 40 carries. The Gamecocks entered play as one of the worst rushing teams in the conference, but using tempo and counter runs they carved up the Vols.

“They took it to us,” defensive end Kyle Phillips said. “We really didn’t have an answer for them.”

Since entering SEC play, Tennessee’s rush defense has cratered. It’s not historically bad like a year ago — No. 125 nationally and a SEC-worst 5.4 yards per carry — but teams have taken advantage of a defensive line lacking depth and a linebacker unit mostly bereft of playmakers, with opponents averaging that same 5.4 yards per carry in UT’s four league losses.

Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina all rushed for more than 200 yards. Only Auburn didn’t, and not coincidentally, that’s Tennessee lone conference victory. After Saturday, the Vols now rank 13th in the SEC in yards per carry allowed at 4.8 a rush.

“It’s really a lot of things (we’re doing wrong), including myself,” Bituli said.

“We’re going against, like, really talented running backs, so we’ve just got to build a wall so there running backs can’t just spill gap. That’s really what we need to focus on.

“We’ve just got to focus on our individual assignments. Each and every individual has their own assignment to do, and we’ve just got to focus on that and do our own assignment and don’t (drift) into somebody else’s lane.”

Tennessee will get a slight reprieve this weekend against Charlotte — the 49ers average just 3.35 yards per carry — but the Vols know they must solve their assignment issues in a hurry if they want to make a bowl game. Kentucky’s Benny Snell Jr. leads the SEC in rushing, Missouri’s Larry Roundtree III is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and has eight touchdowns, while Vandy’s transfer tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn has been quite productive (6.81 yards per carry, eight touchdowns) in his first season in Nashville.

Whether it’s winning more 1on1s or filling the right gap, Vols are confident they can fix their problems and piece enough bodies together to build that wall.

“I think if we just focus on what we need to focus on and play our keys the right way, I feel like we can stop anybody,” defensive tackle Alexis Johnson said.

“We’re all a small piece to the puzzle. When we all do everything we supposed to do, we all fit together, and it’s like a wall.”