published Sunday, November 11th, 2012

Tennessee Volunteers' defense shows progress

Tennessee's Maurice Couch, left, and Jacob Carter, right, walk off the field as Missouri celebrates its victory.
Tennessee's Maurice Couch, left, and Jacob Carter, right, walk off the field as Missouri celebrates its victory.
Photo by Allison Love /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's defensive coordinator changed locations, and it briefly changed how a maligned unit performed.

With Sal Sunseri moving to the coaching booth from the sideline, the Volunteers held Missouri to 64 first-half yards and 371 in regulation in Saturday afternoon's 51-48 four-overtime loss to the Tigers at Neyland Stadium.

After allowing an average of 483 yards per game, Tennessee was respectable against Missouri, but the Tigers found a rhythm in the second half and scored touchdowns on each of their possessions in the first three overtimes.

"The players were playing good," head coach Derek Dooley said. "They were executing the defense. We didn't put them in a lot of bad positions to mess up or get challenged deep in the part of the field."

It was in key moments -- in particular two fourth-down pass plays on the Tigers' tying drive -- where the Vols again were unable to make plays. Yet after giving up 721 yards to Troy last week, Tennessee played better defensively, forcing two three-and-outs early, two turnovers and two stops with a 28-21 second-half lead.

"We came out knowing our calls and running our calls to the tee," linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "We had probably one of our best weeks of practice. Coach Dooley was on the defensive side, and we had great practices."

Amid some mystery, Sunseri maintained his play-calling duties despite his move the booth. Safeties coach Josh Conklin had "a lot" of input, Dooley said. Cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley and defensive intern Brandon Staley, another former coordinator at the junior college level, handled the signals on the sideline.

"[Sunseri] called it, and he did a good job," Dooley said. "He's used to looking at it from that perspective, and I think that helped. Everybody on defense had a different role, and it was a lot of good dialogue."

Said cornerback Prentiss Waggner: "I think it was real good. With Coach Sal in the box, he sees the entire thing. He sees the big picture, and I think that was a good adjustment for us."

Despite the early struggles, Missouri managed to finish with 390 yards of offense after halftime.

"Eventually, you've got to bring some pressure and can't just sit there with eight guys back there the whole game," Dooley said. "When you bring pressure, you've got to hold up outside every now and then."

Game of 'I spy'

Aware of James Franklin's running and scrambling ability, Tennessee used linebacker Curt Maggitt as a spy to shadow the Missouri quarterback. Maggitt has played more defensive end this season than linebacker, particularly against spread offenses, but the Vols used him as more of a traditional linebacker Saturday.

It was effective, as the sophomore had five tackles, 1.5 for loss and three quarterback hurries.

"That's why we had a spy, so when he broke we could trigger and get the ball out a little quicker," Dooley said.

Maggitt was hurt on the third play of Missouri's tying touchdown drive and left the field on crutches, putting no weight on his right leg. It hurt Tennessee, as Franklin's mobility allowed him to keep some plays long enough to find open receivers. His tying toss to Dorial Green-Beckham followed that script.

Drummer's dream

Tennessee lined up for a field goal in its second overtime possession, but holder Tyler Drummer caught everyone off guard by taking the snap and sprinting into the end zone.

"I was thankful that Coach put me in that spot," said the walk-on receiver. "It was a great snap and great blocks. We just started that this week."

After playing at Powell High School near Knoxville, Drummer began his college career at the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky before transferring to Tennessee.

Recruiting notes

Tennessee hosted two official visitors for Saturday's game.

Dominic Zanca -- a 6-foot-2, 246-pound three-star linebacker from Lake Brantley High School in Altamonte Springs, Fla., who committed to Tennessee in April -- made his official visit.

Offensive lineman Reeve Koehler, a 6-foot-3, 330-pound four-star prospect from Hawaii, made the long trip for his official visit. Most of the Pac-12 has made offers to Koehler, who also holds an offer from Georgia. He named UT his leader after an unofficial visit during the summer.

Extra points

Defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry (MCL sprain) did not play Saturday. ... Tailback/returner Devrin Young (concussion) returned from a one-game absence, though Marlin Lane replaced him as Cordarrelle Patterson's sidekick on kickoff returns. ... Missouri's Jimmie Hunt returned a first-half kickoff for a touchdown, the first time Tennessee has allowed such a score since Georgia's Brandon Boykin did it in 2009. ... Justin Hunter had the eighth 100-yard receiving game of his career, and Tyler Bray moved into fourth on Tennessee's all-time completions list and recorded his fourth career 400-yard game. ... Linebacker Johnson's first-half touchdown was his fifth on just 11 carries this season.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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