Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson (45), defensive back LaDarrell McNeil (33), and defensive back Justin Coleman (27), from left, raise their fists after making stop during the Vols' opening scrimmage on Saturday, Aug. 17. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel
When defensive back JaRon Toney enters, linebacker Brent Brewer departs.
When Brewer enters, Toney heads to the sidelines.
In Tennessee’s first two games, the Vols usually had the flexibility to switch between nickel packages and their standard 4-3 set with ease, sometimes even on consecutive plays.
That probably won’t be the case against Oregon, which tries to limit opportunities for opponents to bring in fresh players.
The Vols (2-0) play the Ducks (2-0) on Saturday (TV: WATE, 3:30 p.m) at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore.
Most of the focus has been on the ability of Tennessee’s players to physically cope with Oregon’s frenetic pace. But the Ducks’ offense also poses a challenge for coaches, who will have to get the right personnel on the field. Once a player is on the field, he might not get a chance to come to the sidelines until Oregon’s possession is over.
“You can’t just play three or four plays; you may need to play five or six plays,” said UT coach Butch Jones. “And is your sixth play as good as your first play?”
Tennessee has rotated through plenty of players in its first two games, but the Vols haven’t done much subbing based solely on personnel.
Toney is the nickelback. He enters when the down and distance calls for a fifth defensive back or when the opponent’s style demands it.
The Vols used the nickel set 85 percent of the time in the opener against Austin Peay. Against Western Kentucky, the Vols were in nickel 56 percent of the time.
When the Vols return to their base 4-3 set, Brewer enters as the third linebacker and Toney exits, giving the defense four linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs.
There are a few other personnel-based changes. Nose tackle Daniel McCullers often leaves the field on third downs, giving way to Trevarris Saulsberry. In goal-line situations, the Vols stack the field with linemen and linebackers.
How much of these switches will be possible against Oregon — and how UT coaches will structure the defense if they’re not — remains to be seen.
“It’s going to change a lot,” Brewer said. “It’s going to be hard to get people out there.”
Jones said the goal would be to get the best 11 players on the field. Those 11 players have to be adaptable and durable. They’ll have to provide Tennessee enough size to handle shorter-yardage situations while providing speed when the Ducks air it out.
And they can’t be huffing and puffing after a few snaps.
That brings Jones back to McCullers, whose endurance has improved dramatically since he was a puffy junior college transfer last summer. But a game like the one the Vols anticipate Saturday could still be taxing on the 350-pounder.
Jones said he won’t tolerate a drop-off during long drives.
“There has to be the same attention to detail, the same effort, the same focus,” he said. “(Oregon) has no weak links. They work to make you uncomfortable. That’s why you have to be a mentally tough football team to be able to compete.”
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