KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's defense has spent the offseason preaching the importance of preventing the long runs it allowed far too often late last year.
That defense will learn exactly how far it's come in that regard Monday when the 25th-ranked Volunteers open the season by facing a Georgia Tech offense that thrives on creating big plays with its rushing attack.
Tennessee split its final eight games last year after a 5-0 start in part because an injury-riddled defense gave up too many breakaways. Tennessee allowed nine runs from scrimmage of at least 40 yards - eight in the last eight games of the season - and six carries of at least 60 yards. No Football Bowl Subdivision team allowed more rushes of 60-plus yards, according to cfbstats.com .
"That was the utmost priority," linebacker Colton Jumper said. "It was one of the top things we worked on."
If Tennessee's run defense remains vulnerable to the big play, Georgia Tech's triple-option attack isn't exactly an ideal matchup. The Yellow Jackets had 13 carries of 40-plus yards last season , tied for the most of any Power Five program. The only FBS teams with more runs from scrimmage of at least 40 yards were New Mexico, Navy and South Florida.
Georgia Tech is missing some of those big-play threats from last year.
Justin Thomas, the Yellow Jackets' starting quarterback for the last three seasons, has completed his college career . Dedrick Mills, who rushed for a team-high 771 yards last year, has been dismissed from the team .
But Georgia Tech derives its big-play ability as much from its scheme as its talent.
Tennessee's coaches have continually reminded their players about the dangers of a single missed assignment. Defensive tackle Kendal Vickers says this is probably the most film he's ever watched of an opponent as he's analyzed the varying levels of success other defenses had against Georgia Tech.
"It's (about) having your eyes in the right spot at all times," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "One guy gets just slightly out of position, where against another operation it might be a 3- to 5-yard gain, against these guys it can be a significant chunk play."
Shoop is trying to bounce back from a disappointing debut season at Tennessee .
The former Vanderbilt and Penn State defensive coordinator had units ranked among the nation's top 25 programs in total defense each of the five years before coming to Tennessee, but the Vols finished 95th in that category last season. Tennessee gave up 37.1 points per game in its final seven matchups with FBS opponents as injuries decimated the defense and hit the Vols particularly hard at tackle.
Tennessee's already getting bad news in that regard this year. Darrin Kirkland Jr., the Vols' top linebacker, underwent meniscus surgery Wednesday and will miss the Georgia Tech game. No timetable has been set for when Kirkland might return. Jumper will take over at Mike linebacker in Kirkland's absence.
"Injuries are part of it," Shoop said. "We've dealt with it before. The things I really like about this team so far - you find out more when you get into games - is we haven't had real highs or real lows. They've all been pretty 'steady Eddie.' That's one positive. I think this team, I think this unit will handle these types of things, this adversity better."
All those injuries from last year have boosted the depth of this year's defense because so many players were forced into playing time. Tennessee's roster features 17 defensive players who started at least one game last season, including nine guys who made at least four starts.
Those players say they've learned their lessons from last season.
"I feel like we're more focused as a defense," safety Micah Abernathy said. "I see that in every position in the room in our unit meetings."
They're about to discover whether that's actually the case.
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