KNOXVILLE — The performances have been ugly for Tennessee's defense.
The numbers are even uglier.
In blowout losses to Alabama, Missouri and Auburn the past three weeks, the Volunteers were run over for 987 rushing yards and nearly 7 yards per carry, and Tennessee now ranks last in the SEC and 114th nationally out of 125 FBS teams in run defense, allowing 225.9 yards per game.
While both Missouri and Auburn took advantage of the speed deficiency and poor tackling by the second level of Tennessee's defense, the Vols' defensive line failed to offer much resistance, too.
"It's definitely disappointing," defensive end Corey Miller said after the Vols practiced Tuesday on an off-week schedule. "We've had our letdown days. We've had our sad days. We come together as a defensive line, and we've talked about it. We've discussed the past guys. We've discussed what Tennessee means to us. It's all a mentality we've got to bring.
"It's more shocking than it is surprising, because we know exactly what we're supposed to do. Coach Strip [defensive line coach Steve Stripling] comes in all the time and he tells us, 'You guys have all the answers, why can't you produce it on the field?' It's completely on our backs to get it done."
With games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky remaining, Tennessee has yet to hold a BCS conference opponent to fewer than 200 yards on the ground, and Auburn bettered Missouri's 339-yard performance with a 444-yard game, led by quarterback Nick Marshall's 214 yards.
Both sets of Tigers got the ball to the edge and into space, where the Vols have been their worst defensively the past two years, but even more traditional offenses such as Alabama's, Georgia's and Florida's found success running against Tennessee, which is actually 22nd nationally in pass defense, up from 114th in 2012.
"It's testing our manhood as a D-line, and not all of it's completely on us," defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. "We've got to have the secondary help us out. It's just like last year when we were giving 400 or 500 yards passing, it wasn't all on the secondary. It was on the D-line not getting pressure, so it just proves that as a team, we weren't playing smart football.
"We weren't in the gaps. We weren't doing the little things right, the little inches that Coach [Butch] Jones talks about all the time, whether it's a safety being 1 yard inside the tackle or outside the tackle, or whether it's Big Dan [McCullers] lining up in a three-technique or lining head up on the guard. It's the little things like that lead to big blowouts like that."
In the past three games, the Vols have recorded only eight tackles for loss, and Miller's assisted stop against Missouri was the only defensive line contribution to that number. Against Florida, Georgia and South Carolina earlier, defensive linemen accounted for 11.5 of the Vols' 20 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
The Vols' lone sack in the past three weeks came from blitzing cornerback Cam Sutton against Auburn.
"It's the intensity, the intensity we're bringing to the table," Miller said. "You noticed with South Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia, it was a have-to mentality. It was a hungry, want-to-get-after-it mentality, and we've got to have that same intensity every game."
Asked why that's been missing the last three games, Miller had no answer.
"We're all sitting here asking ourselves the same questions, and that's 'Why?' The question is why. Every time we come into the film room, every Monday, it's like, 'Why, why, why?' Basically what we're trying to do is fix the whys, come out here and just be productive."
Jones pointed to the absence of tackles Trevarris Saulsberry, who's missed five games with a knee injury, and Mo Couch, who's been ineligible with an NCAA issue since the second game of ths season.
"You take away two defensive tackles out of your rotation, and that'll change a lot of football teams in a hurry," he said.
For the Vols' first-year coach, those absences are problems, but not the only reason for the poor performances.
"Football's an easy game," Jones said. "It's technique, and it's a mentality. Playing offensive and defensive lines, it's a different type mentality that it takes, and it's a combative mindset. Every single play is a street fight. It is what it is, but there's so much technique."
Said Miller: "It's definitely obvious what we're doing wrong. It's all a mentality. It's all getting our assignments down, being correct with our assignments, being physical, coming off the ball, being fast -- every time."
Left tackle Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, who didn't practice the week of the Vols' October open date, lifted weights while the Vols practiced indoors. ... Defensive end Marlon Walls, who did not play against Auburn, was back at practice. ... Receiver Cody Blanc did not practice and is on crutches. ... Linebacker Curt Maggitt, who is redshirting this season after tearing his ACL late in the 2012 season, worked with the defensive line Tuesday and shed the brace on his right knee in favor of a black sleeve. ... Geraldo Orta practiced after suffering a knee injury in kickoff coverage against Auburn. ... Redshirting true freshman defensive end Malik Brown is out with a wrist injury.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...