KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee football players have been dodging giant medicine balls for months now, an attempt to prepare for Georgia Tech’s cut-blocking tendencies.
It’s what comes with playing a triple option team, dealing with those cut blocks below the waist, at the line of scrimmage as well as in the open field.
But there’s so much more, and as Vols’ coordinator explained the importance of proper alignment and eye-discipline.
“It’s not necessarily the physical piece, it’s having your eyes in the right spot at all times,” said Shoop, one of the most coveted defensive coordinators in the nation before choosing Tennessee’s offer over Auburn’s after the 2015 season.
“If one guy gets just slightly out of position, what might be a 3-5 yard run against another operation, against these guys could be a significant chunk play.”
Georgia Tech’s 16 plays from scrimmage of 50-plus yards in 2016 ranked eighth nationally and fourth among Power 5 schools.
And those chunks might be even bigger against the Vols now that Darrin Kirkland Jr. — arguably Tennessee’s most talented defensive player — has been ruled out for the season with a knee injury.
The 6-foot-1, 238-pound junior middle linebacker from Indianapolis sustained a torn meniscus in what Coach Butch Jones called a “bizarre” incident in the Aug. 25 practice.
“We’d hoped for a positive prognosis, that it could be three to five weeks,” Jones said after Kirkland underwent surgery last Wednesday. “It’s all about moving forward now, and we have some individuals who have played a lot of snaps for us.”
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Senior Colton Jumper will start at middle linebacker against Georgia Tech, and Dillon Bates will also see action action Georgia Tech.
Shoop said there’s a specific depth chart for the Yellow Jackets’ unique offense, and after the opener sophomore Daniel Bituli and freshman Will Ignot could emerge at middle linebacker.
But on Monday night, it’s Jumper starting in the middle flanked by Cortez McDowell and Austin Smith at the outside linebacker spots in a conventional 4-3 defensive alignment.
“It’s really important that we keep it simple,” Shoop said, “give our guys a good set of keys, get them aligned precisely and work our butt off at beating blocks, running to the ball and gang tackling.”
As for missing Kirkland, who Shoop identified in the offseason as the most important defensive player to have healthy, the second-year defensive coordinator shook his head.
“We can’t dwell on D.K. not being there; I feel worse for him not being there than I do anything else,” Shoop said. “But this unit will handle this type of adversity better (than last year’s team). We all have tremendous confidence in Colton and the guys behind him.”
Tennessee coach Butch Jones’ press conference