Tennessee Stat Book
Tennessee would obviously prefer not to ever see a penalty flag.
But under the right circumstances, it might be fine with one or two from the secondary in the short term.
The coaching staff has publicly challenged the toughness of its defensive backs, tried to build their confidence, drilled them on playing more physically near the line of scrimmage and even slipped in a couple subtle suggestions to grab a receiver or two while getting their point across.
That message has been delivered clearly to the Vols over the last couple weeks in preparation for No. 7 Alabama on Saturday at Neyland Stadium (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.). And in an effort to get the secondary to compete at a higher level than it has lately, in some respects UT might even be all right if it draws a few flags in the process.
"Right now, we probably want them to give us the opportunity to say, 'Whoa, we're probably sticking them too much,' " defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said. "That would be good."
That doesn't mean UT (2-4, 0-3 SEC) is encouraging dirty play or trying to get penalized, but after a rough first half defending the pass, it's definitely looking for more aggression in coverage - particularly at cornerback.
Statistically the Vols enter the weekend as the worst total defense in the conference, and allowing more than 227 yards per game through the air has certainly been a large part of their problems. The blame can be spread around to the defensive line for struggling to get consistent pressure on the quarterback or linebackers missing tackles in the short passing game, but junior Art Evans didn't even need to be told where the Vols could start working on cutting that number down.
"I think everybody can see it, it kind of looks like we've been playing a little soft," Evans said. "I'll at least say that about myself. But the coaches have been pointing that out, and we're going to respond to that.
"Whatever coverage we're in, we've just got to challenge the receivers an awful lot. You can tell the difference whether somebody's playing timid or soft or actually coming out and challenging them instead of just giving it to them. I know a lot of people could probably look at the TV screen and go, 'Why is he playing so far off?' Really it comes down to challenging the receivers more."
Crimson Tide (6-1, 3-1 SEC) leading receiver Julio Jones can obviously return the challenge right back, and he's also no stranger to contact on the perimeter, which should provide instant feedback on the progress Evans, Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon are making at cornerback.
Teague has been a pleasant surprise in coverage since moving over from wide receiver at the start of the season, and his six passes defended are tied for fifth-most in the league. But none of those have gone for interceptions, and neither Evans nor Gordon have one yet for a team that needs an edge in the turnover battle against an Alabama team that leads the league in that category.
So just like maybe drawing a penalty or two, UT might also look the other way if a defensive back gets beat deep on occasion if it means he's confident enough to gamble on a big play.
"I think if you're going to make a mistake in football, you always want to make it on the aggressive side and going full speed," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "We're not out here teaching them to hold and cheat and do all that, but we need to play aggressive and we need to play confident.
"That's what we need those guys to do, not be afraid to make a mistake."