Strange: Points piling up on beleaguered defense

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If you think you're witnessing the worst defense in Tennessee's long and esteemed football history, you're almost right.

After Alabama's 41-17 rout in Tusculoosa on Saturday, I wondered if Tennessee had ever allowed 40 points in three different games during the same season - prior to this one.

I had to go back to 1893 - that's 1893, not 1993 - to find a precedent.

Grover Cleveland was in the White House when UT's fledging program lost four consecutive games by a combined 256-0.

It's that rare. In a 50-year span from 1923 to 1973, the Vols were touched for 40 points in a game only once, by Ole Miss in 1947.

To be fair, the modern game is different. There are Tim Tebows, Percy Harvins and DeSean Jacksons coming at you from all angles.

That said, you're still supposed to tackle them every now and then.

Managing a college football program is a balancing act. Just two short years ago, Tennessee was losing games by 16-7, 6-3 and 16-15.

John Chavis and his defense were hanging tough. Their margin for error was slim because the offense couldn't find the end zone with a GPS. Get beat on one big play late and it might cost you the game.

How the roles have flipped. Erik Ainge and mates better score a bunch because the defense is going to give up a bunch: 45 to Cal, 59 to Florida and, on Saturday, 41 to Alabama.

In the Cal and Florida losses, Tennessee's offensive goofs and punt-cover breakdowns contributed scores. Alabama earned all 41 the conventional way and did it without Heisman Trophy candidates or All-Americans.

The timing couldn't be more discouraging. Just when it appeared the defense was taking shape against Georgia and Mississippi State, it's back to the drawing board.

Outside the locker room in Tuscaloosa, junior Demonte Bolden promised the defense could get on the practice field Monday and get things corrected.

Phillip Fulmer didn't wait that long. He called a rare Sunday night practice.

The problem is he doesn't have any miracle fixes. Improvement will come, but the gains will likely be in inches, not the miles that are needed.

The Vols are giving up an average of 32.3 points a game, which ranks 94th nationally, and 406.7 yards a game, which ranks 80th.

They've produced only nine turnovers in seven games, which ties for 106th. Their seven sacks tie for 100th. They rank 117th out of 119 teams in tackles-for-loss per game (3.71).

"We've just got some young guys out there having challenges,'' Fulmer said Sunday. "We can get those things tightened up and get back to being ourselves, or as close as we can be.''

It's fair to wonder how close the Vols would be to themselves if they had Inky Johnson (injured), Roshaun Fellows (dismissed), Demetrice Morley (flunked out) and Antonio Gaines (injured) in the secondary.

Anticipating at least some of that attrition, the Vols recruited junior-college defensive backs DeAngelo Willingham and Nevin McKenzie. Neither, however, has proved to be an answer, thus true freshmen Eric Berry and Brent Vinson are starters.

Would the secondary get more help up front if defensive linemen Gerald Williams, Rae Sykes, Rufus Williams, Rolando Melancon and Cory Hall had not been denied admission in the past two signing classes?

"That's all hypothetical,'' Fulmer said, "but you sign guys because you think they can help you.''

No major personnel moves are in the works, Fulmer said. The cavalry isn't coming up Chapman Highway at full gallop. He can't sign a veteran cornerback off the waiver wire.

So you try to, uh, tighten up and look to the future.

Where you see, among other things, Arkansas averaging 37.7 points a game and Kentucky averaging 42.

Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or

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Comments » 61

georgiavol91 writes:

Nothing will change until Money Mike Hamilton sees a reduction in the dollars rolling in. When that happens, Phil will be ousted faster than the Great Pumpkin.

utmdm writes:

On last week's Locker Room Show, Cosey was the guess and was talking about discussions he had with Phil about going pro. They asked the question if he had to do it over again. My dish fizzed out. What was his response?

injunvol writes:

for the life of me i dont understand why anyone would call this a defense - its not even close as of right now its nothing more than a joke

tnvolfan4ever writes:

Everybody seems to think, if we give up our season tickets, don't go to the game, stay home, Fulmer will be fired. What will happen is... some else will gladly take your tickets and gladly go to the game in your place and even spend more money. I've been a ticket holder for many years and I know a bunch of people that would buy them if I wanted to sell them. AIN'T GONNA HAPPEN!!!!!!

snafu14u#241639 writes:

There are two things that I thought would never happen at UT, bad o-lines because of Fulmer's background and bad defenses because of Chavis.I gave up on the special teams long before then.IF we have the talent then there is no excuse but the coaches. It's just that simple.bonzaivol

volunteer76#220064 writes:

What defense. I predict UT will only win one more game this season. The program has been in a downhill slide for the past 4 years. How long will this be tolerated?

vol52 writes:

Our defense and special teams sends the opponents away smiling. If the offense plays like it did against bama they will join the club.

OldNumber7 writes:

"The Vols are giving up an average of 32.3 points a game, which ranks 94th nationally, and 406.7 yards a game, which ranks 80th.

They've produced only nine turnovers in seven games, which ties for 106th. Their seven sacks tie for 100th. They rank 117th out of 119 teams in tackles-for-loss per game (3.71)."


vol4good#206163 writes:

I don't think Fulmer or his staff has the answer. I doubt any of his coaches know the answer either. But, I bet TN beats SC this sat. He has his large backside in a tight corner--and seems to respond well when that is the case. Hey can someone at kns write a few more tough articles about him, please.

ColumbusVol writes:

Somewhere....Randy Sanders is laughing
His revenge will be ever so sweet.

Kentucky will find redemption for 22 years of heartbreak.

phi0129 writes:

Wow looks like people are finally starting to realize maybe all us Fulmer haters were on to something...

volfaninchattanooga writes:

Cosey Coleman said if he had it to do all over again, he would have came back for his senior season.

tennisvol writes:

No doubt, worst defense since Fulmer has been head coach at UT and apparently not getting any better. I don't think the ole ball coach is worried about scoring on Chavis' defensive schemes. You get 7 yards on the 1st play because the secondary is playing 10-15 yards off the ball. Afraid of the long pass I guess, so they let the other team march down the field for a TD.

utvols1969 writes:

The only encouraging facet of this years fiasco is the fact that Mike Hamilton has no qualms about getting rid of non-productive coaches, regardless of their contract or their "love of UT." Just ask Buzz Peterson and Rod Delmonico.
While I'm venting my anger, I'm so glad Saturdays blood letting in Tuscaloosa was not on national television. Bad enough people in the JP viewing area had to watch. Gen. Neyland just turned over in his grave for the 3rd time this year!!!

arkyvol writes:

improvement? one place to start would be to fire chavis and hire a real defensive coordinator.

SmokeDog72 writes:

Hamilton is still talking about winning the East? Give me a break. We may not end up bowl eligible.

Our athletic department is reminding me of a crack addict who swears he doesn't have a problem.

Denial, denial, denial.

Problem recognition:
When you realize there is a difference between your actual condition and your desired state.

Are we where we want to be? 5th in the East? Getting waxed by rivals? Anyone who is content to be where we are must have grown up an Ole Miss fan. I can handle close, competitive losses to other SEC schools from time to time. But, I can't handle this phooey. Losing to Bama and Florida by an average of 31.5 points? Ole Miss played both of those schools closer and I am hearing that they are the worst in the conference this year. Are we sure about that?

We must deal with the reality of the situation. Talent wise we are middle of the road. Coaching wise we are in the bottom 25% of the conference. When you can't out-talent half of the teams in the SEC and you can't outcoach 3/4 of the teams, what the hell do you think is going to happen?

I think we have seen twice (in conference) and I am sure we will see at least two more times.

Kentucky is going to score 60 against our D. I will be curious to see if our basketball gives up fewer points to UK than our football team.

west_tn_volfan writes:

I keep reading comments about how much Phil loves Tennessee and how his blood runs orange but then many of these same people say get rid of Chavis. Doesn't his blood run orange? Isn't he a UT guy? We need to let both of them go regardless of the color of their blood. Performance is what counts. That's the standard the rest of society is held to but when it comes to a coaching staff doing a lousy job, all that matters is how much they love their employer?
Gee I wish the rest of us could get away with that.

OldNumber7 writes:

marc_ash - that might be a fair statment. Had the defense stopped Alabama and given the ball back to the offense, I feel confident they would have put up more points. I don't think the offense was bad - just not opportunistic. And the block score shows they didn't have many opportunities to adjust thanks to sitting on the bench all day. You might be on to the first priority of needed change.

On those defensive statistics and recruiting: this ain't the NFL - Tennessee won't get the first draft pick.

volmac72 writes:

Fulmer, Cutcliff, and Chavis were all B*&^%-slappped by Major Applewhite, a young, fresh, and obviously talented OC (former Texas QB a few years back). Oh yeah, Saban wasn't bad either.Does anyone have a clue where i'm going with this?

RemembertheAlamo writes:

....if the offense had ran the ball more then they could have given the defense more rest so they could have stopped Bama some....both Offense and Defense needs to help each calling was bad...bad...bad...17 runs....good balance attach...........

Ironcity writes:

The Defense is horrible and blitzing more won't change that. Whats ironic is we blitz all the time. Its hard to tell because the guys typically can't get past the line of scrimmage. I have never seen blitz packages as poorly concieved as the ones UT runs. I am tied of the youth answer. There is not one Frshman or Sophmore starting in the defensive line or at the linebacker position.

rbhobbs73#226545 writes:

Coaching. Coaching. Coaching.

That is what is wrong. This team quit yesterday, which marks the 3rd time in the last 7 games that the team quit. That is the surest sign a coach has lost a team. Before the bowl game last year, I had only remembered seeing a UT team quit once...the Georgia game in 2003. Also on Fulmer's watch.

It is absolutely pathetic to not even realize that, arguably, our best running back hadn't played all day when a reporter asks you about it and give a BS excuse as to pass catching. This is the same twosome (Fulmer & Chavis) who told me and the other 107,000 in attendance that they were not in a prevent defense during the last drive of the 2001 Georgia game (hobnail boot game) when myself and everyone else in the stadium saw our first line of DBs were 15 yards off the ball and the 2nd line of DBs were 30 yards off the ball. But they weren't playing prevent. Fulmer and Chavis both said it in the post game press conference. Fulmer and Chavis have been in a fantasy land ever since the then.

Volunatic writes:

For me, the 2nd most sickening part of that game was toward the end of the 3rd quarter, down by 13, 3rd and two, Foster averaging 7 ypc, Vol defense exhausted, and they called a dink post pass (incomplete).
Even worse, on 4th down, defense STILL exhausted (of course) after only a minute of regulation had elapsed since they were on the field, and Phil calls a punt.
Did he really think the defense could stop Bama at that point?
I repeat, FOSTER WAS AVERAGING 7 YPC, for crying out loud.
I LIKE old-school Tennessee football, the RUN-ORIENTED type, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT IS WORKING. Why not continue with what is working?
I'm also bewildered why the excellent UT defense in '05 has been so pathetic ever since we brought in an OC who is competent for the most part. (I like Randy Sanders, and he is a very good position coach-- he coached UT's RB's in '97 and '98, and coaches Woodson now, but as a coordinator he wasn't very successful.)
FireFulmerites, you might just get your wish after this season. If so, I hope we get a coach who can "do a lot with a little", like Greg Schiano up at Rutgers has done. We'll see.
Doh Vols!

hoskinsfive#468391 writes:

Control your own destiny and cant get fired up for BAMA! Anyone who thinks Fulmer is not the problem is an absolute idiot!

invisiblekid writes:

"We've just got some young guys out there having challenges,'' Fulmer said Sunday. "We can get those things tightened up and get back to being ourselves, or as close as we can be.'' The year has changed but the excuse machine keeps on rolling.

A defense with 5 seniors, 2 juniors, 1 true sophomore, 1 redshirt sophomore, and 2 freshmen would be considered experienced in this day and age by most credible coaches, especially given that they had 6 games under their belts going into Saturday. If the schemes are so complex that players can't get them after 3 years, maybe it's time to simplify things.

jmatt62 writes:

Bottom line, either Fulmer has to go, or he has to let Chavis go and so he can keep his head coaching gig. This defense is a complete embarrasment to all UT fans. The program needs new blood on D and Hamilton better recognize. I've not made statements like this ever before, but our defense is pathetic. KY will put up half a hundred on us, and Arky will do another 40 before it's all over.

asleep#212036 writes:

Not to be drinking the KoolAid but Fulmer SHOULD throw coordinators under the bus. He is a CEO, as are all big-time football head coaches. They wine and dine boosters, make speeches, talk to the media, handle recruiting, suck up to administration when needed, etc... Bottom line is that very few of them actually coach much anymore. The trade-off is that your coordinators have to be on the same page and on the ball, all the time. If Fulmer was calling plays when Sanders was there, it was because he didn't trust his (Sanders) judgment. Firing him was what any corporation would have done. Either Sanders couldn't handle the job (very likely) or Fulmer didn't trust that he could. I think he waited too long to let him go. Chavis should be next. He and Fulmer are friends, I know, but Big Phil has been entrusted with our football program as our CEO. That means hiring the right people for the job and letting those go who don't perform. Our defense is woeful and there doesn't appear to be any solution on the horizon. Got to make a change, no matter how painful. If Fulmer is willing to do that, I can go with it. If not, then he is not qualified for his duties as CEO and he needs to go as well. Go Vols!!!

DennisVols writes:

How can you expect a defense to stop anyone when they are one the field 70% of the time like they were against Bama. Even the few times they stopped Bama all the offense did was spend 1 minute on the field before they gave it back and the defense was back out there. Heck I got tired watching them run back on the field before they ever got completely off.
Yes this defense is not the best we have ever had and may be one of the worst but when you spend most of the game playing defense because the offense can't substain a drive or because the coach shows how weak his confidence is in the offense becaue he won't attempt a 4th an 1 what can you expect.
The defense has many areas for improvement and the main area of improvement has to come from the offense controling the clock more.

Coach_Joe writes:


orangebloodgmc writes:

What if Berry was playing cornerback instead of Vinson? I recall he made florida pay when they tried to pick on him. If I had to move Berry away from some position, I would have more confidence with Wardlow, McKenzie or even Parrish at safety than I do with Vinson at cb. What do you all think?

asleep#212036 writes:

It does seem that Vinson is overwhelmed in coverage but I don't know that he is physical enough to play safety. Remember, he started out as a receiver. Vinson let DJ Hall run free in the secondary all day and on more than one occasion was looking around for him AFTER he already scored! I say make the switch and then hope that Pellissippi State can get Mr. Morley back in the good graces of the NCAA - we need him badly! If Gaines gets a medical redshirt and Morley returns, next year's secondary would have to improve - wouldn't it? Go Vols!!!

orangebloodgmc writes:

Asleep, I don't know if you were replying to my post, but I did not suggest moving Vinson to safety; I suggested moving Berry back to cb. Geaux Vawls!

asleep#212036 writes:


My bad. I reread your post AFTER I posted - sorry. I do agree though that Berry's athleticism is being wasted at safety. And if Morley comes back, we won't need Berry at safety next year anyway. Go Vols!!!

phi0129 writes:

Ok I'm going to have to disagree about Chavis. Let's be honest here, we have had solid defenses the past 15 years. It is pretty hard to be consistently a top 10 D for that long. Because of academic ineligibility/drug/other issues, we are missing 4 or 5 guys that probably would've started on this year's D including the biggest Baddaddy of them all. I think Chavis should get the benefit of the doubt due to his prior track record. Maybe revamp the D, come up with some easier schemes, but he's not the one responsible for the decline the last 9 years before this season. That is FULMER!!! This weekend proved that Fulmer has nothing left in the tank. He didn't even attempt to put us in a position to stay in the game. I can count double digit coaching errors that killed us. Especially the 4th and 1 we punted on late in the first half, essentially gaining 20 yards of field position and preventing us from maybe going into halftime up 4 instead of down 10 (not counting miracle field goal).
And I will say this...everything people say about the AL refs are ABSOLUTELY true! The TD that took the wind out of our sails was hogwash. Vinson made probably the best defensive play of the year to tip that ball that Hefney intercepted in the end zone. That was the worst pass interference call I have ever seen! And then the next play Hall pushes off and catches a TD pass, and of course NO CALL. That ticks me off as well.

asleep#212036 writes:


I'll give you Chavis' track record the last 15 years statistically against most teams. But how many great defensive games did we play against Spurrier's Gators, Saban's Tigers, or Tuberville's Tigers? My point? Chavis' defensive prowess is a fraud, plain and simple. Against wide open offenses we have always struggled, even in our NC year. Problem is that now everyone we play that matters runs a wide open spread offense. The future is not pretty my friend as long as "Chief" runs the D. I love the man and I love his UT spirit and I doubt if Fulmer has a more intense competitor on his coaching staff but the game has passed him by. Sorry. And you called it right on - those two calls in the end zone were so typcial of SEC referees. Our freshman doesn't get the benefit of the doubt and their All-SEC senior does. What a crock! Go Vols!!!

wyomingvol writes:

Our D has gone from dominating 7 years ago, to bend but don't break 4 years ago, to can't stop anyone on 3rd down 2 years ago, to never show up in the 4th quarter or big stop situation in the last year.

I don't support the O part of the team any more than the D. But, if You are handing out merit badges, none of this coaching staff gets one and D is not excluded. This is not their only first glimpse of being sub par.

If You are firing the 'Head Coach', Please take all 'Assistant Head Coaches' with You.

Yes, the ref calls sucked against Bama, but not as bad as our team as a WHOLE.

Really, the players on O didn't play bad, we MADE alot of really bad calls.

As far as the players on D are concerned, I don't think any defensive plays were being called at all..... So I hold judgement.

rbhobbs73#226545 writes:

we have had a few All-Pro D-Lineman and blitzed relentlessly to cover a bad secondary for years. Go look at the tape of any UT game for the last 15 years and our secondary looks like phooey. It doesn't matter if they are seniors or freshmen. they look exactly the same. lost.

Then they get drafted and go play successfully in the NFL, after the NFL coaches teach them out of the bad habits they learned at Tennessee.

pdhuff#552644 writes:

rbhobbs73 - you are dead on! They have quit several times this year. No fire - they have played like Phil coaches - no emotion! The penaltys they received Sat shows a lack of discipline. The only thing Phil is 1st at would be the buffet line. We have been going downhill for 5-6 years and I see no end in sight. Ran our smallest tailback on 3rd and two, wouldn't go on 4th and one at the Bama 48!! No wonder they quit! ITS TIME, PHILLIP, OH LORD IS IT TIME!

Volaholic writes:

Hey Phil,
Once again you blame the defeat on lack of execution. Try this on for size, "lack of preparation", "lack of team dicipline", "lack of player development". Execution reflects your leadership, Coach.

TheAntiSaban writes:

Two words: Pete Carroll

naesfootball writes:

I guess we all saw it coming.BAMA has SABAN,we have the Great pumpkin.I wonder how long it will take Saban and Bama to get back on top?

murrayvol writes:

Good post invisible. It's five games to midnight and the clock is ticking.

asand211#361548 writes:

I agree with you Murray, Invisibe presented some very eye opening facts. Our defense is failing even with years of experience under its belt. The defense is bad and only seems to get worse. Alabama ran around us, over us, and through us. The bad part is that we have tremendous athletes on defense but from game one they have looked terrible. After the Cal game I was sickened by the way the defense was so inept at open field tackling. That is nothing more than fundamentals and the basics taught in first year tackle football for youngsters. Sure, there are times when good running backs will make defensive backs look stupid but when it happens more than five times in a game there is an obvious problem. If you review the Alabama game you will see that Wilson and Hall made our defensive backs look like true freshmen.

asand211#361548 writes:

I would like to add one more thing and I could be wrong. I have been a Vols fan for almost two decades and I remember the years when the only game we worried about losing was against Florida. People grew weary of the guaranteed defeat and fans complained, however, it was always less than half who were against Fulmer. Even in recent years as the program's success declined there were still many diehard Fulmer fans who would stand behind him until the end but not now. Things have definitely changed for the worse and even Fulmer's defenders realize that the program is in a tailspin. I have seen zero support for Fulmer on these blogs and that is something that has never happened before. I think if the status quo continues into next year there will be a major fallout. I say again, I could be wrong.

Colliervol writes:

The program has been in a tailspin for a number of years. Any reasonable person could see that. The difference with a lot of us was that we were willing to give Phil a chance after the 2005 mess. Others (with obvious personal agendas) would not. (And it's pretty easy to tell who those folks are because they insist on piling on with the personal insults even when the matter has pretty much been decided.) Huge waste of time discussing who did what to whom and when. My philosophy is that it's time to move on and figure out who can resurrect a once-proud program. We just have to hope that Haslam and Hamilton concur. Because if they don't, ain't nothing going to happen.

TIDER writes:

I fully support him! Just kidding. While a Tide fan I fully appreciate the VOL nation and did not enjoy the blowout- not good for anyone. Missed the defensive struggles of old where the boys dragged and limped themselves off the field. This certainly did not help them prepare for what lay ahead.

I was prepared to argue that maybe you gents were being a little hard on the guy (knowing I lack credibility in here), but this article really puts it in perspective. I don't think anyone in their right mind could argue Bama has better (I think we are a few notches below parity in fact) athletes, and if Fl and Cal have superior, it is only in a few skill positions.

From my perspective what really stood out to me was the lack of intensity, coaching faults aside. This is the only 3rd Sat in my memory where one of us didn't show up.

With TN talent levels, the past few years are head scratchers... Hope you get your mojo back whoever is at the helm- the SEC needs UT back in BCS bowls.

Also, fully agree on officiating crew- missed calls all day long! Both teams were left to hold at will, our TD (highlighed many times above), the late hit...

invisiblekid writes:

Thanks Murray and asand211. It just really galls me when I see Fulmer throwing out the experience and injury card when everyone in the conference and college football in general has to deal with those issues. AL had 5 returning starters on defense, FL had 2, and Cal had 4 just to bring up a few teams we have lost to this season.

invisiblekid writes:

Dead-on post Tider, can't find a single point to argue with as much as I tried LOL. Good luck with the rest of the season, especially Nov. 3rd.

TIDER writes:

Thx invisiblekid, likewise.

socalijohn#326910 writes:

Not to defend the current Tennessee staff. But Chavis is not a bad coach. Just not an innovator. Until recently Chavis has put together some of the best defenses. However, now the talent level isn't the same. The recruiting landscape is more competetive. Tennessee's past philosophy of just playing smash mouth with the best athletes doesn't work.

We need to understand in the new competitive SEC we'll have to make do with good not great players and have them overachieve and innovate our schemes. I think Cutcliff can do that. Chavis will need to do more creative things with the talent he has or he won't make it to 2008.

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