football Edit

Vols secondary 'still hungry,' not 'hanging their heads' after WVU loss

The good news for Tennessee’s secondary is they won’t see a better quarterback-receiver tandem than West Virginia the rest of the season.

The bad news is that Tua Tagovailoa, Drew Lock, Jake Fromm and Jarrett Stidham are all quality quarterbacks who are still on the schedule, too.

Tennessee’s new-look secondary was torched Saturday against Mountaineers, as Will Grier & Co., totaled 429 passing yards and five touchdowns by routinely beating Vols defensive backs in man-coverage.

Only freshman corner Alontae Taylor wasn’t victimized badly, as safeties Nigel Warrior, Micah Abernathy and Trevon Flowers all surrendered big plays. The same for corners Baylen Buchanan and Bryce Thompson.

Jeremy Pruitt is considered a secondary savant, and the defensive backs coach whisperer lamented the slew of mistakes his unit made in the 40-14 loss. Buchanan echoed similar sentiments, but made it clear one rough performance wasn’t going to beat down a green group.

“We’re not going to get discouraged,” the junior corner said.

“We’re not going to hang out heads. Nobody is walking around here feeling sorry for themselves. We know we made a lot of mistakes. That’s just something we have to get corrected. But we have a long season and everybody’s still hungry. Everybody is ready to play and nobody is feeling sorry for themselves.”

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

A year ago, the worst run defense in school history camouflaged a Tennessee secondary that was middling but mostly untested.

The Vols finished the 2017 season with the nation’s No. 3 pass defense, allowing 13 total passing plays over 25 yards.

On Saturday, Grier had eight completions over 25 yards.

The Vols sorely missed Rashaan Gaulden, who may start for the Carolina Panthers as a rookie, and a poor pass rush certainly contributed to the issues, too. Sunday’s film session was a rough rewatch for the secondary, with Buchanan and Pruitt both bemoaning an inordinate amount of technical mistakes, lack of communication and not making Grier “pay” for putting the ball in the air 35 times. A slight concern is that Buchanan didn’t have an explanation as to why the secondary couldn’t translate what they’ve done in practice for a month to the game.

“Just a lack of execution," he said.

"It's a learning experience for everybody (with a) new scheme," he said.

"But we're just going to get it corrected. We made some plays, but we didn't execute to our standard, we didn't play to our standard and that's something that the coaches are going to to go over on film and we're just going to get it corrected.”

The Vols played three freshman (Taylor, Flowers and Thompson) a lot of snaps Saturday, but while the kids naturally made mistakes in their first collegiate game, it was the Vols’ veterans who delivered an even more frustrating performance. It will be interesting to see if Pruitt plays more guys in the secondary Saturday against ETSU, potentially giving Theo Jackson or Shawn Shamburger a long look.

“Being one of the older guys, we need to take more charge and more lead back there,” said Buchanan, who was one of three upperclassmen to play most of the game.

“The young guys made some plays, but as a whole, we didn’t execute how we were supposed to. We didn’t play by our standard. And that’s something that we have to do better.”

With ETSU and UTEP coming to Neyland Stadium the next two Saturdays, Tennessee has three weeks to get ready for its SEC opener against Florida. Feleipe Franks struggled mightily behind senior last season, but UF’s redshirt sophomore quarterback tossed five touchdowns passes in the opener and should be a decent test for secondary hoping to find its footing before the rest of the fall gauntlet.

“We can’t get that game back,” Buchanan said. “That’s one thing that the coaches are going to stress. We’re going to make the right corrections and just move forward.”