Tennessee Football: What Vols Must Do to Contain Georgia RB Todd Gurley

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 24, 2014

September 29, 2012; Athens, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley (3) runs away from Tennessee Volunteers linebacker A.J. Johnson (45) in the second half at Sanford Stadium. The Bulldogs won 51-44. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee's rush defense revival is about to meet the nation's best runnerGeorgia's Todd Gurley.

If the Volunteers are going to have any chance to upset their division foe in Athens, they've got to find a way to slow the 6'1", 226-pound junior Heisman hopeful.

Nobody has been able to stop Gurley this year, and few teams have during his career between the hedges. He hits holes with authority and arrives with the power that every NFL team will covet come draft time.

So, the task facing UT coach Butch Jones and a revamped Vols defense that has impressed so far is daunting.

They know it, too.

Gurley will be accompanied by freshman phenoms Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, and possibly Keith Marshall, who tore his ACL in Knoxville last year. So, Jones told GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required) he has several concerns:

When you think of the University Georgia, you think of their stable of running backs, and it is a stable—very talented, very physical. Gurley, Michel, Chubb, Marshall, they all bring a different element to their backfield.

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Make no mistake, though, the Vols' game plan begins and ends with slowing Gurley.

So, what can UT do?

Beyond throwing at UGA versatile, multiple looks, stunting defenders and trying to confuse the Dawgs, there isn't much that goes into turning and handing it off. The Vols know that, and so they've got to have a method of attack. Here's how they should.

Stack the Box

Sep 13, 2014; Norman, OK, USA; Tennessee Volunteers defensive back LaDarrell McNeil (33) celebrates with teammates after making an interception during the first half against the Oklahoma Sooners at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Cre
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Hutson Mason is a quality quarterback, but he doesn't possess the kind of dynamic arm or foot speed to consistently beat teams on his own.

That's why the Vols have got to make him beat them.

UT cornerbacks Cam Sutton, Michael Williams and Justin Coleman are pivotal because the Vols must sell out to stop Gurley and Co. at the point of attack.

UGA coach Mark Richt told reporter Seth Emerson of The Telegraph that receivers Malcolm Mitchell, Justin Scott-Wesley and Jonathon Rumph likely won't play against the Vols.

So, those are three more reasons why UT should load up versus the run.

When the Vols do, however, they've got to be ready for play action. Having a running back stable like UGA's is the easiest way for an opposing defense to get sucked in and beat deep.

While Georgia still has some receiving weapons, they're nothing like the Bulldogs' runners.

The Dawgs are averaging 304 yards per game, and that includes a game against Clemson's vaunted defensive line and SEC foe South Carolina.

UT has allowed an average of 129 rushing yards, good enough for seventh in the SEC and 49th nationally. Considering those numbers were 13th and 101st in 2013, it's been a vast improvement.

With nimble, athletic defensive linemen like Jordan Williams, Owen Williams, Corey Vereen, Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett, the Vols have gotten after quarterbacks and disrupted plays in the backfield many times this year.

But against a big, physical line like Georgia's, they'll need the help from the second tier. A.J. Johnson is one of the league's best linebackers against the run, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin has proven adept as well.

They'll need to be at their best against Gurley.

Beef Up the Line Rotation

Sep 13, 2014; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Keith Ford (21) during the game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Gurley has the ability to pummel defenses with his big body and demoralize them with his speed, so it's essential that Tennessee keeps a fresh group of defenders on the field.

Against Oklahoma, UT rotated in seven defensive linemen, but five of those played the vast majority of the snaps. The rotations at linebacker were even slimmer.

That has to change.

The Vols want to put Georgia in third-and-long situations as often as possible. UT is second nationally in third-down defense, and Johnson had a very matter-of-fact answer this week to a reporter when asked about putting UGA in those spots.

While the Vols have thrived using the smaller, quicker linemen, they need versatility matching up personnel Saturday. They need to be able to give Georgia some bigger, more versatile looks and throw waves of defenders at Gurley.

A couple of returns to the practice field may enable them to do that.

Rucker (subscription required) noted during the bye week that UT defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry and defensive end Dewayne Hendrix are now practicing. Neither played against the Sooners, and Saulsberry has been hobbled for various reasons much of his career.

When he has played, the 6'4", 296-pound redshirt junior defensive tackle from Gainesville, Florida, has been one of UT's most talented, promising linemen.

When asked if Saulsberry would play against UGA, Jones told Rucker in that same article, "Well, it is early. We don't know if he'll be game-ready yet, but just to have him back out there is big, and he's worked exceptionally hard to get himself back on the football field."

If Saulsberry and 6'4", 275-pound freshman defensive end Hendrix can play, UT can go big or small along the defensive front.

Keeping linemen fresh will be a huge factor considering Gurley has plenty of options to give him breathers throughout the game.

A.J. and Pray

NORMAN, OK - SEPTEMBER 13:  Linebacker A.J. Johnson #45 of the Tennessee Volunteers warms up before the game against the Oklahoma Sooners September 13, 2014 at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma. The Sooners defeated the Voluntee
Brett Deering/Getty Images

Let's face it: This is going to be one of the two toughest offensive tests UT faces all season, along with Alabama.

If the Vols can devise a game plan to limit Gurley's yards, they are going to be a force for every other SEC offense to reckon with for the remainder of the season.

Jones acknowledged during Monday's press conference that rush defense has been a team strength so far. In the same breath, he added, "but now we'll really find out heading into the Georgia game obviously" how good the Vols are.

Tennessee must have one of its best tackling games of the season and limit those yards after contact upon which Gurley has built his reputation. They've got to hit him quickly and frustrate him the way South Carolina did in Columbia when Gurley came close to losing his cool a couple of times.

The best thing UT has going for it is the Vols have the best linebacker UGA will face in senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson.

He probably has been dreaming about this battle with Gurley since deciding to return, especially considering Gurley missed last year's game.

Johnson did come back to Knoxville, and he's probably still got a bit of a chip on his shoulder after the Bulldogs failed to offer him a scholarship out of nearby Gainesville (Ga.) High School.

He's never beaten them since he has been at UT, and Saturday will be his final chance to take a bite out of Gurley. Johnson gave the running back his due to Rucker, but Johnson certainly wasn't heaping too much pregame praise:

I don't put nobody on a pedestal. I mean…nobody. But they've got good backs. That's all I really can say. But personally, I don't really care who we're playing. We play against good backs all the time. We've just got to do our jobs.

That job is going to be extra difficult this weekend. But the mentality of Johnson mirrors that of the entire Vols defense. They aren't afraid; this is just another opportunity for the Vols to show everybody that they're back.

Slowing down Gurley would be a trumpet blast that would make all of college football listen.

Unless otherwise noted all statistics gathered from CFBStats.com. All recruiting information from 247Sports.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.