Tennessee’s pass defense has improved radically this season, going from one of the nation’s worst a season ago to a middle of the pack SEC unit this season.
There’s a number of reasons for the Vols’ pass defense improvements including the now injured Kamal Hadden’s development. But as Tennessee approaches a critical SEC East showdown at Missouri, the Vols are readying for the best passing offense they’ve faced to date this season.
Missouri quarterback Brady Cook is one of the conference’s veteran signal callers and has propelled the Tigers to 285 passing yards per game, a mark that ranks fifth in the SEC.
“Missouri, when you look at them it starts with the quarterback,” Tennessee defensive line coach Rodney Garner said. “He’s a really good football player and has a really good command of their offense.”
“He’s smart, he’s accurate with the football and he is athletic,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said of Cook. “Has the ability to affect the game with his feet. And we gotta do a great job in the pass game. We gotta affect him, not let him be comfortable in the pocket while doing that. You cannot let him escape the pocket. He’ll be dynamic and make big plays with his feet and his arm as he breaks contain.”
Cook has taken a major leap from his sophomore to junio season but he’s also been elevated by the playmakers around him. Receiver Luther Burden was one of the conference’s best freshmen a season ago. Now as a sophomore, Burden is one of the SEC’s best receivers.
“They create a lot of big plays with chunk plays, design shots down the football field,” Heupel said. “He’s a really good player. And when he gets the ball in his hands, he’s difficult to bring down. They do a good job of moving him around too, where you gotta track where he is at … they try to find matchups for him. So we gotta do a great job against him. But he’s not the only wide receiver. They got a really good core group of wide receivers that are doing that.”
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Cook is a mobile quarterback but doesn’t look to take off running often. The junior quarterback’s rushed for just 173 yards this season. What he does so well is getting out of the pocket, extending plays while looking to take shots down the field.
The Tigers ability to hit big plays off script is on of the main reasons they have one of the SEC’s best offenses. Tennessee’s improved pass rush is the biggest reason its pass defense has been better this season. The Vols’ front four has been less effective getting home the last two games and the pass defense production has predictably dipped.
Kentucky and UConn both have below average passing attacks and had an abundance of success through the air against Tim Banks’ defense. There’s a number of variables that’ve led to that including loading the box to take away Kentucky’s run game and Hadden’s injury.
But the struggles getting to the passer are a major reason why. If Tennessee’s pass defense is going to turn in a strong performance against Missouri, the front four have to be disruptive.
“We just have to strain,” Garner said of the additional protection teams have used against Tennessee. “The ball is coming out quick. They’re (opponents) max protecting, they’re chipping. That’s part of football. We have to just continue to work on our fundamentals.”
In a down year for quarterback play in the SEC, Missouri boasts the best passing offense Tennessee’s faced to date. Spencer Rattler and South Carolina have had success through the air this season but couldn’t pass block enough to present the Vols any real problems.
If Tennessee’s going to earn its first top 25 win of the season, its pass defense has to meet the great challenge Missouri’s offense presents.