football Edit

Defensive focus on fundamentals and physical play

It’s hardly breaking news to suggest that Tennessee’s defense stumbled down the homestretch of the 2016 season.

The Vols surrendered huge offensive numbers to their final three SEC foes. Both Missouri and Kentucky managed to top 400 yards rushing, in two games Tennessee incredibly won despite that defensive ineptitude.

Then the Vols closed the year by giving up 400 yards passing to Vanderbilt and quarterback Kyle Shurmur, a player who had never passed for more than 279 yards in a contest before leading the ‘Dores to a victory in that game.

It was a disappointing way to close the season for the Vols, and specifically for what turned into a much-maligned defense.

“On the back end we just didn’t make plays, myself included. We didn’t make enough plays as a unit as far as the defensive backs go. We’re going to learn from that and come out in the next game and show what we have,” safety Micah Abernathy said of what turned out to be a disappointing November.

Several players have specifically talked about the season ending loss as one that they will never forget, and that's just fine for the head coach.

“They shouldn't forget it. Everyone in our football program shouldn't forget it from myself, to coaches, to everyone," Jones explained. "Again, it's a standard and expectation in our program. Our players understand that's part of the culture. They know it's part of why they are here. They take great pride in the program and it gets back to we are here to win football games, graduate and be successful people.”

The Vols’ defense dealt with significant injury problems on all three levels, starting in the first month of the season and pretty much continuing unabated all year long.

Abernathy, like everyone else on the team, refuses to use the injuries as an excuse for the less than stellar performances turned in by the defense.

Rather, he called the biggest issue a breakdown in fundamentals.

“Overall, as far as the defense goes, we just need to tackle. That’s something that we’re working on everyday and we realize we have to get better,” Abernathy said of what even the most casual observer could pinpoint as a problem for this squad more or less all season long.

Added Jones, “We are going to do more tackling than we ever have in terms of bowl preparation. It's a balancing act because you want to be fresh for the bowl game too. But when you look at the bowl games when the bowl season starts it's usually dictated by special teams, turnovers and by tackling. The last couple bowl games we have won, we have excelled in those areas.”

Fortunately, this is the time of year that provides college coaches and players a chance to take a step back and really put in work on some fundamental aspects of the game that just isn’t possible during the season when you’re preparing for an opponent every week.

Bowl practices are generally viewed as being most beneficial to those young players on the team who haven’t had a chance to get much playing time, or individual attention from the coaching staff for that matter.

As a player not far removed from that scenario himself, Abernathy agrees that this time of year is hugely beneficial to freshmen, but points out that it’s also valuable for veterans like himself who have played a good bit of meaningful football.

“It was really valuable for me as a freshman. After the season, going into the bowl game, I just remember having a lot of developmental periods. We even had them after practice for the younger players and that really helped me out a lot. It gave me a chance to work on things that I didn’t do well during the season when I got in games. I felt like it gave me a chance to get better before the bowl game and then could carry that into the spring,” Abernathy said of how he benefitted from this time a year ago.

“I feel like it’s the same as last year now. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young player or a veteran, you need to work on yourself after practice and in individual drills. Just work on the things that you don’t do well, or things you don’t think you did as well as you can. It’s a chance to get better.”

Vereen's message

Time is winding down on the career of a small but productive senior class. That includes defensive end Corey Vereen who has been really good the last half of his senior season. With the last moments of a career, come reflection and a chance to leave an impact on the younger guys. He sees the growth and several players have actually picked his brain.

"A guy like Kyle Phillips, Dimarya Mixon and even Shy Tuttle are guys that come to me and ask me how I stay focused day in and day out," Vereen said. "I tell them they have to keep pushing and focus on your technique. You can't ever be satisfied. You can't be satisfied with what you did on Saturday or Monday. You are only good as your last game or last practice."