KNOXVILLE — Tennessee continues to play mostly man-to-man coverage in its secondary.
Opposing offenses continue to exploit the Volunteers' pass defense.
At the midway point of the season Tennessee is 84th nationally at 251 passing yards per game allowed, and both cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley and safeties coach Josh Conklin struggled some to point to where the Vols currently are excelling.
"I think our pass coverage on the outside is tight," Ansley said. "I think our [nickelback position] could be a lot better in slot coverage. That comes with reps and that comes with discipline on alignment, but all our guys are playing decent.
"We're not playing winning football right now in some areas, but we've got to continue to get better and get all 11 guys playing up to par."
Last week Mississippi State found success throwing to its tight ends, and receiver Chad Bumphis beat UT safety Brent Brewer and cornerback Marsalis Teague, who came in when Justin Coleman left the game the play before after a hit left him dizzy, for key first downs out of the slot on the clinching drive.
Georgia's Michael Bennett caught two touchdown passes against one-on-one coverage in the slot two weeks ago. Teams have exploited the middle of the field all season long.
The Vols, who have just eight sacks this season, broke up eight passes against Mississippi State, but Conklin wants to see his players finish plays better.
"We're covering well and in position to cover well, but we're not finishing well," he said. "You have guys in positions to make plays in the slot, and they're not making plays. We can teach them some things to help them out, and we've go to put them in a little bit better position.
"The one thing we stress is always tighten the windows down on the wide receivers and the quarterback, and that's one thing that I thought at times we did well, but we're just not playing at the level yet that we need to play at consistently enough to eliminate some of the big plays. I think with the big plays, if it's a first down, you don't notice them as much. But when it's third-and-6 and you've got to get off the field and you don't make them, you notice them."
Though Tennessee already has matched last season's total with nine interceptions in six games, Ansley wants to see more pickoffs. Safety Byron Moore dropped an easy one against Mississippi State that could have been a momentum-changing play. Carrying out Ansley's order could be more difficult on Saturday night against top-ranked Alabama.
Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron is fifth nationally and first in the Southeastern Conference in passer efficiency rating and has yet to throw an interception in 132 passes this season.
"It's really tough because he's a good football player," Conklin said. "They're good top to bottom as a program and as an organization, so it's extremely tough. Your guys understand that.
"They're going to try to wear you down, and if you can stay mentally into it and mentally tough enough the entire game, you see what happens in the third and fourth quarter."
Ties to Tide
Ansley and Tennessee defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri were on Alabama's staff the past two seasons. The 32-year-old Ansley was a graduate assistant for the Tide before taking the defensive backs coach job at Central Florida in December, less than two months before his hire at Tennessee. Nick Gentry, who played defensive line at Alabama, is an administrative intern for the defense.
"Me and Coach Sal are not going to go out there and make any play," Ansley said. "These kids have got to go out there and believe in their abilities and believe that they can beat this team. I think they do.
"I'll talk to most of the [Alabama] assistants [during pregame]. It's going to be like any other game where you've got friends that coach in the SEC. You just go up there and see how they're doing, see how their families are doing and you get ready for the game."
Starting tailback Rajion Neal practiced Thursday morning, but Tennessee's leading rusher was moving gingerly on a heavily taped ankle and the Vols weren't in pads. His status for Saturday remains questionable. He could play, but his level of effectiveness could keep him out. ... Tennessee's former championship-winning coach Phillip Fulmer, who will be inducted formally into college football's hall of fame in December, and the Vols' 1997 SEC title team will be honored before Saturday's game. With his Denver Broncos on their bye week, legendary Vols quarterback Peyton Manning is expected to attend. ... Tennessee released its full 2013 schedule Thursday. The nonconference slate features visits from Austin Peay (Aug. 31), Western Kentucky (Sept. 7) and South Alabama (Sept. 28) and a trip to Oregon (Sept. 14). The Vols have open dates between Georgia and South Carolina in October and between Auburn and Vanderbilt in November.
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 ...