published Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Tennessee Vols secondary shows marked improvement

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (11) runs for yardage as he is tackled by Tennessee's Brian Randolph (37) and LaDarrell McNeil (33) on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, in Knoxville, Tenn. Georgia won 34-31.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (11) runs for yardage as he is tackled by Tennessee's Brian Randolph (37) and LaDarrell McNeil (33) on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, in Knoxville, Tenn. Georgia won 34-31.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — In three games last October, three quarterbacks set their career highs in passing yardage against Tennessee's defense.

And that was before the Volunteers allowed Troy to throw for 496 yards.

It's been a totally different story for Tennessee's secondary this month.

Neither Georgia's Aaron Murray nor South Carolina's Connor Shaw cracked the 200-yard mark against Tennessee, which now faces Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron in visiting the top-ranked Crimson Tide.

"I think it's just confidence," safety Brian Randolph said following Tennessee's practice Tuesday. "We have a lot of confidence back there. We made some big plays earlier in the year, and that did a good thing for our mental game. We know we can go out there and do it.

"I'd say it's all of the above. Coaching has really helped us. They've put us in the right spots to make plays. The experience, we've all been through it aside from Cam [Sutton, freshman cornerback], but he learned pretty fast. We've got good knowledge back there."

The Vols didn't have much of anything in its secondary last season.

Mississippi State's Tyler Russell (308 yards), McCarron (306) and Shaw (356) all lit up Tennessee, which ranked 114th out of 124 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in pass defense a season ago. Georgia State was the only team Tennessee held under 200 yards passing last season, and eight teams passed for at least 245 yards on the Vols.

So far this season, only Oregon, whose Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Marcus Mariota torched the Vols for 456 passing yards, Western Kentucky and South Alabama have cracked 200 yards passing.

"I feel like this year we're giving way more effort," cornerback Justin Coleman said. "We're playing with each other a lot more, and we're all committed to what we're trying to do."

Tennessee is 65th nationally in passing yards allowed (230.1) this season after giving up 282.5 yards through the air per game last season.

Sutton, who's impressed coaches and teammates with his talent, maturity and approach, is really the only addition. Randolph's return from a knee injury has shored up Tennessee's back end, but Coleman, safety LaDarrell McNeil and nickelback JaRon Toney combined to start 20 games last season.

A simpler scheme probably has been the biggest reason for the improvement.

"Just from going against them in the spring and in camp, and being close with some of the defensive guys, talking to them and seeing the difference in what they're learning and what's being taught to them, it's not surprising," tailback Rajion Neal said. "Those guys are pretty smart, and I think they're now just understanding the defense a little more.

"It's been simplified for them, and I think they're just going out and having fun and playing off instinct."

Tennessee limited South Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to 10 plays of 20 or more yards after surrending nine such big plays to Oregon. Shaw's 76-yard hookup Saturday with speedy receiver Damiere Byrd, who outran Coleman, was the longest play against the Vols this season.

The Vols' 12 interceptions -- nine of them from defensive backs -- are the second most in the SEC. Missouri has 14.

"I think they're playing with a very high level of confidence, but again, we're going to be challenged [by Alabama]," first-year Vols coach Butch Jones said. "It's all team defense. We were able to generate pressure on the quarterback [last game], and it goes hand in hand. Great secondary play is usually linked amongset winning up front and winning your one-on-one matchups.

"We were able to do that, but there's still much improvement that needs to be made. We gave up a long touchdown pass, and a lot of it was technique and understand the down-and-distance. It's second-and-2. That's a waste down. You're going to get a deep pass. We have to take tremendous strides in moving forward."

McCarron will challenge Tennessee's improvement. The fifth-year senior, who's led Alabama to consecutive national titles, has had 300-yard passing games this season against Texas A&M and Kentucky.

Three Alabama receivers have had big games against Tennessee the past three meetings. Julio Jones torched the Vols for 12 catches and 221 yards in 2010, Marquis Maze had 106 yards on five catches in 2011 and Amari Cooper had his coming-out party -- a seven-catch, 162-yard performance -- as a true freshman in Neyland Stadium last season.

"We came a long way. We've gotten better," Coleman said. "We're finally starting to get it that we're a pretty good team, and we're not really looking back on the past. Playing the top team in the country is something we're basically looking forward to to show everybody that we're pretty good."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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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