KNOXVILLE — As a grueling and physical college football season unfolds, Tennessee’s questionable depth has been tested, particularly on defense.
Fighting manpower issues isn’t new to Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin. He experienced a similar issue back in 2001, the first season of Pete Carroll’s tenure at Southern California.
“We had a lot of the same issues the first year,” Kiffin said Tuesday in his weekly media briefing. “Number of kids that didn’t buy in so (they) weren’t there, so that hurt our numbers. And just a number of kids that we felt weren’t good enough to play, play at the level we needed to. That’s how we went 6-6.”
If Kiffin’s Vols rise to the occasion for Saturday’s trip to the Grove against Mississippi (6-3, 2-3 Southeastern Conference), Tennessee (5-4, 2-3) will equal that win total from Carroll’s first year at Southern Cal and — more importantly — become bowl eligible.
“It’s starting to really get down to crunch time for both teams,” Tennessee defensive end Chris Walker said. “(The Rebels) were really highly touted at the start of the year and they are looking for wins, and we are trying to get into a good bowl game. It’s a really big game for both of us.”
Just as the Vols got off to a slow start this year, the same occurred for USC eight seasons ago. The Trojans started 2-5 then closed the regular season with four straight wins. Tennessee was 3-4 after a 12-10 loss at Alabama, but is riding its first winning streak under Kiffin after beating both South Carolina and Memphis by decisive margins.
Part of the process is dictated by the struggles of learning new offensive and defensive systems. And any coaching turnover comes with its fair share of roster attrition.
“You can’t do it overnight. To turn a roster around, it takes awhile,” Kiffin said. “You’ve got to go out there, you’ve got to find guys, find the right fit for your system and you’ve got to develop them. It’ll take some time.”
It remains a work in progress. The Vols’ backups got significant work in the second half of Saturday’s 56-28 win over Memphis, but Kiffin said the performance of the second-team defense was “embarrassing” after UT’s backups yielded three touchdowns and nearly 300 yards of offense after halftime.
At the same time, Kiffin noted that such an effort could be a boon in the coaching staff’s ongoing and aggressive recruiting efforts.
“Guys see it as they’re watching the game. Either they’re here or they’re watching it on TV, and they saw guys go in and they’re watching it, saying, ‘Boy, they do need a lot of help,’” Kiffin said. “That was obvious, and we do lose a number of seniors that are very productive for us.
“We’re not losing a bunch of high draft picks necessarily, but we’re losing a bunch of guys that are very productive, so there’s a great opportunity to come here and play right away.”
EXTRA POINTS: Herman Lathers, the Vols’ third starter at middle linebacker, has a blood disorder that requires that he have his blood tested multiple times per week. “We’ve had a number of Fridays where we’ve had to test him and we didn’t know for sure where his count would be and whether he would play,” Kiffin said. … Tennessee has beaten Ole Miss 12 consecutive times, but the Rebels are favored by 4½ points. … Saturday’s game kicks off at noon and will be televised by CBS (WJHL-TV11). … This is just the fourth time the Vols have made the trip to Oxford, Miss.