Tennessee coach Derek Dooley could use a few sturdy defensive backs this week to help the Volunteers blitz Mississippi’s formidable run game.
The problem is, he’s having a hard time fielding a complete secondary because of injuries, suspensions and dismissals.
“We just don’t have a lot of guys. We’re just think. We don’t have a lot of guys back there,” Dooley said.
The Vols (3-6, 0-5 Southeastern Conference) already were thin in the secondary at the start of the season after Dooley dismissed would-be starting safety Darren Myles Jr. following his second arrest. During spring practice, redshirt freshman cornerback Naz Oliver tore a knee ligament.
The team’s woes were compounded when starting cornerback Marsalis Teague suffered a turf toe injury during their Oct. 23 loss to Alabama and Dooley indefinitely suspended cornerback Art Evans for a violation of team rules.
Sophomore Prentiss Waggner has moved from safety to cornerback to fill their spot, leaving freshman Brent Brewer as the only strong safety listed on Tennessee’s depth chart.
“It really prevents you from pressuring more than you’d like,” Dooley said. “Where it really worries you is if you’re going to dial up some blitzes.”
The Vols need blitzes if they want to stop Ole Miss (4-5, 1-4). The Rebels rank 13th in the FBS in rushing with an average 221.6 yards on the ground per game, thanks to tailback Brandon Bolden and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli’s ability to make clutch runs.
Masoli, who suffered a concussion Saturday against Louisiana-Lafayette and hasn’t yet been cleared to play against Tennessee, also has a habit of throwing on the run.
It was the only way Memphis, whose average 14.2 points per game ranks second-to-last in the FBS, managed to burn the Vols on Saturday. The Tigers scored their only two touchdowns in Tennessee’s 50-14 win on passes to Marcus Rucker, who darted by the defensive backs.
“You’ve got to have a lot of guys who can run and cover, and we don’t really have that on our team right now,” Dooley said.
Waggner returned two fumbles for a combined 45 yards against the Tigers, and starting free safety Janzen Jackson returned an interception 35 yards, but the pair combined for only three tackles. Cornerback Eric Gordon led the unit with six tackles and an interception, and Brewer had two.
The secondary could get some relief should Teague return this weekend. The Vols coaches have slowly been increasing his workload during practice, and Dooley said after Tuesday’s practice that the sophomore was starting to look better.
Dooley said Evans was working to get reinstated, but didn’t know when he would be, and Oliver has returned to practice but isn’t prepared yet to play.
Backup cornerback Anthony Anderson, who broke up his first pass of the season in Tennessee’s win over Memphis on Saturday, said the guys who are healthy are doing what they can to keep from being a liability for the team.
“That’s part of life, you go through tests and we’re having a big test right now with the young guys, but we’re not young anymore,” the junior said. “We’re going to have to step up. It’s big-boy ball and we’ve got to be big guys now. We expect to do well and we need to work to do well.”