Game preview: Tennessee vs. Florida
The ball was snapped, Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead had it in his hands and Tennessee was doomed.
Before linebacker Daryl Vereen had a clear chance to wrap up Pead behind the line of scrimmage last week, the Vols had missed six assignments, secondary coach Terry Joseph said. Vereen's botched tackle attempt certainly drew the ire of those who saw Pead scamper 65 yards down the sideline for an early touchdown, but the damage control that was supposed to be behind him was all out of whack, too.
"When you're going at a tempo like that, if you line up wrong, you're going to have to pay severe consequences," Joseph said. "It could have been a minus 2-yard gain and instead it goes for 65 yards.
"The consequences of doing it wrong at this level are high."
They'll be even higher at No. 16 Florida on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 3:30 p.m.), as speedy tailbacks Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey both have the ability to torch even the most fundamentally sound defenses — let alone ones that make six mistakes before the ball is in their hands.
"They get on the edges pretty quick and even when people have them leveraged in, they'll run around the leverage players on defense," UT defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "It's got to be something we emphasize all week on defense, and we have. And tackling is going to be a huge part of it."
Though it's expected Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis will expand his playbook after two lopsided games against two overmatched opponents, it's become clear that the Gators' offense will go as far as Rainey and Demps can take it.
Rainey is the only player in the country who leads his team in both rushing yards (198) and receiving yards (110). Demps has been similarly active in the Gators' offense, and the pair, despite barely playing in the second halves of romps against Florida Atlantic and Alabama-Birmingham, have combined for six of the Gators' nine touchdowns.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley was asked specifically about Rainey after practice Wednesday, but his answer quickly included both players.
"He always shows up as a difference-maker in the game, and those guys scare you to death," Dooley said. "Even when you do it pretty good, they're so fast and have that play-making skill, sometimes there's nothing you can do but watch it."
Both Demps and Rainey have averaged 7.1 yards per carry during their careers, a total that is the best in the nation among active players with at least 200 carries.
Even when presented with opportunities down field, quarterback John Brantley often has deferred to his right-hand men in the backfield, who don't typically require a long, risky throw and don't need much space to turn short passes into long gains.
The key, linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said, won't be countering whatever Weis presents with new, complex formations. The awareness will be there, but the basic fundamentals won't change.
"Until they catch it, they really haven't gained a yard," Sirmon said. "Those routes down the field, they catch it and they've already gained 15 to 18. We have to be aware of who has the ball but we're not changing our scheme or how we play certain defenses because of who they are."
Outside of one big play in each of its first two games — an 80-yard catch by Montana's Jabin Sambrano and Pead's long run — the Vols' defense has backed up the "bend but don't break" mentality that was a theme throughout the preseason. The problem with Demps and Rainey, though, is they can bend teams all the way down the field before crossing into the end zone.
"The key is setting the edge of the field and hopefully somewhere around the numbers is where we can cut down the space a little bit," Joseph said. "There's not too many guys in America who can tackle these guys in the open field one on one.
"If we can reduce the space they have to run in, it helps our chance of getting them on the ground."
UT's tackling, coaches said, has steadily improved since embarrassing performances midway through the 2010 season. In an attempt to simulate the speed of Rainey and Demps this week, the defense was forced to contain freshman tailback Devrin Young, who played the role of Rainey.
At one point Tuesday, linebacker A.J. Johnson "body-slammed" Young, Dooley said, so there was at least one instance where a UT defender was able to track down and wrap up someone with SEC speed.
But as Pead's run displayed, one player isn't always the difference between a tackle behind the line of scrimmage and a touchdown.
"You've got to be aggressive to the ball-carrier and you've got to play with great fundamentals," Wilcox said. "The key of it is we've got to make some good open-field tackles but we've also got to hunt the football.
"If one guy does miss ... we've got to have 10 other guys hunting the football."