Against spread-offenses, nickel and dime defensive packages become critical for a team, maybe even more important than its base defense.
Tennessee used its nickel defense about half the time against Montana on Saturday, and will most likely do the same this weekend against Cincinnati.
A nickel package replaces a linebacker with another defensive back. For UT, that fifth defensive back was either junior Eric Gordon or freshman Brian Randolph in the season-opener.
Gordon, who started six games last season at cornerback, is very physical for a defensive back and has adjusted to playing the appropriately named nickelback position.
“I know what I need to be doing at the nickel,” Gordon said. “I feel very comfortable at the nickel. I feel like week-in and week-out, my preparation is going to be key.”
While Gordon’s physical and aggressive playing style is an asset, UT coach Derek Dooley would like to see him learn to move on to the next play after making a mistake.
“If he could get to mentally where he is physically, it will really be a help for our football team,” Dooley said. “The problem is he steps up and makes a good play but then he has a mental breakdown and gives up a bad play. We’re looking for more consistency from Eric. The biggest breakdowns that he has are mental. He gets himself in trouble early in the down and then he can’t use his skills to help us. That’s his challenge and hopefully, he’ll keep getting better at that.”
Rotating line
Against the Grizzlies, UT substituted defensive linemen every few snaps, a luxury that the depth upfront allows.
“You need fresh bodies rotating in and out,” sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith said. “That’s something we worked on against Montana. We had like perfect subs and I felt like that’s what was the key in the game having a good upfront, fresh defensive line, and that’s something we’re going to do the next game as well.”
When teams like Montana and Cincinnati run fast-paced offenses, the need to be able to play six or eight linemen without having a drop-off in production is vital for any defense.
“It helps us to have a lot of guys, but part of the reason we do that is because we don’t have a lot of really good guys,” Dooley said. “It allows you to play more. But especially with these spread teams, there’s so much lateral running and chasing the ball — you’ve got to keep fresh guys in there.”
Dooley approves
Dooley spoke Tuesday morning for the first time about the hiring of Dave Hart as UT’s next athletic director.
“I’m really excited about starting a new direction from a leadership standpoint in our athletics department,” he said. “The thing I obviously love about Dave is he’s been around big-time college football at Florida State and Alabama. He knows what a football program needs. He knows the support we need. That’s going to be very appreciative when he brings it to us. (Alabama coach) Nick (Saban) had nothing but good things to say about him, and that’s good enough for me.”