Tennessee Football: Can Vols' Secondary Hang with Aaron Murray?

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Tennessee Football: Can Vols' Secondary Hang with Aaron Murray?
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

A season after fielding the worst defense in school history, Tennessee is tied for the national lead with 11 interceptions and is third with 15 forced turnovers. Coach Butch Jones said his team also leads the SEC in points off turnovers.

The Vols are doing a lot of positive things.

But that doesn't change the fact that Aaron Murray and Georgia's prolific offense may be a young defense's worst nightmare.

Murray is poised to shatter SEC passing records and is playing his best football.

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UGA is averaging 41.3 points per game, and Murray is a big reason why. As a fifth-year senior, he is a seasoned veteran of big games. He is the nation's best play-action quarterback and can move even the best defenses with his eyes.

He also—like Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Florida's Tyler Murphy and, on a lesser level, South Alabama's Ross Metheny—is capable of moving the pocket, extending plays and creating big gains when plays should be over.

That type of quarterback has killed UT all year.

So while he is pleased with the momentum-changing turnovers his secondary has forced, UT defensive backs coach Willie Martinez knows his group has hardly arrived. Games like the Georgia matchup are where defenses grow up quickly or get exposed.

We have a long way to go. We're not happy with some of the things that have happened to us either, so it keeps us on the edge, keeps us focused.

This game that we're playing ... we've already played some games like this this year, but when you have a great quarterback like Aaron Murray, you've got great running backs, you've got great wide receivers, you're playing a three-headed horse, so to speak. They've got our attention.

While UT's top two cornerbacks, junior Justin Coleman and freshman Cameron Sutton, have been strengths, a major hole remains unfilled. The Vols have tried multiple bodies at the nickelback position, and they can't find anybody who excels.

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

Opponents have exploited that weakness all season. Tennessee has been consistently terrible covering slants and any passes over the middle of the field. Part of the reason is the Vols' lack of speed at linebacker, but the nickel also has been a black hole.

True freshman walk-on Devaun Swafford got his first career start at nickel against South Alabama. But he struggled so much in coverage that he was yanked in favor of JaRon Toney, another walk-on.

With the return of Riyahd Jones from a blood clot issue, UT defensive coordinator John Jancek hoped Coleman could shift over to nickel, but "that hasn't come to fruition at this point," Jancek said this week. Others have been inserted during practice; nobody has succeeded.

The search for a playmaker—or just a simple stopgap at this point—continues. Against Murray, there may as well be a flashing red light above the nickel position.

Said Jancek:

We're looking for a level of consistency from that position. It's hard. You can't just go base people and throw a linebacker out there when you're playing these teams running three and four wides. You're at a strategic disadvantage, you're at a disadvantage in space, so we're just trying to get somebody to come alive at that position. I'm disappointed.

One of Butch Jones' favorite catchphrases is "eye discipline," which is a fancy term for a defense recognizing whether a play is a run or pass as well as knowing and reacting quickly to where the football is.

It has an important meaning for a young group, especially this week. Murray can dissect defenses as well as anybody by looking off receivers, selling runs on play action and scrambling away from pressure. Said Jones:

Their play-action game is a big concern. (Murray) does a great job with his ball mechanics, hiding the ball. We always look to see if the run looks exactly like the pass, what kind of keys does the offensive line give you, and they just do a great job in that area.

Our eye discipline is going to be critical, because obviously, when you have a formidable run game, you're physical and you can run the football, that creates a mindset of, 'We need to stop the run,' which then lends itself to big, explosive plays in the pass game.

The Vols won't have a more unique test than they had against Oregon, but UGA provides the most balanced attack UT will face this season.

That's why the young secondary must play its best game of the year for the Vols to have a chance.

UT can't match points in a shootout with UGA like it almost did in last season's 51-44 loss. If the Vols can't find an answer for Murray, they'll get blown out of Neyland Stadium.

All quotes were transcribed from videos posted on UTSports.com.

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