A year after Hooker-to-Hyatt, Tide focused on Vols’ ground game

Crimson Tide photos / Alabama redshirt sophomore linebacker Deontae Lawson and his fellow Crimson Tide defenders are preparing this week for the Southeastern Conference's top rushing attack.
Crimson Tide photos / Alabama redshirt sophomore linebacker Deontae Lawson and his fellow Crimson Tide defenders are preparing this week for the Southeastern Conference's top rushing attack.

Alabama's 52-49 loss at Tennessee last October marked the most points allowed by the Crimson Tide since a 54-4 loss to Sewanee in 1907.

Last year's result is having to be relived by Alabama defenders this week, and replacing that memory with a new one is an obvious objective as the No. 11 Crimson Tide await the No. 19 Volunteers.

"We've just got to make sure we get on the same page," redshirt sophomore linebacker Deontae Lawson said in a news conference. "Everyone has to get lined up, and we've got to make sure we stop their run game. That will be a big piece to this game."

Twelve months ago inside Neyland Stadium, it was an aerial combination that caused most of the surprise devastation. Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker threw for 385 yards and five touchdowns, with all five going to speedy receiver Jalin Hyatt, who amassed 207 yards and matched a Southeastern Conference record for single-game receiving scores.

The Hooker and Hyatt show overshadowed a respectable performance by Tennessee on the ground, as the Vols rushed 39 times for 182 yards.

This season's Tennessee team has yet to emulate last year's effectiveness through the air, but the Vols lead the SEC and rank sixth nationally with 231.33 rushing yards per game behind the trio of senior Jabari Small, junior Jaylen Wright and sophomore Dylan Sampson. Wright has surpassed 100 yards four times in six games and is averaging 7.14 yards per carry.

"They certainly make you defend 53 yards wide, and that affects run support in the box," Alabama coach Nick Saban said, "because the guys who are covering receivers are so far away from the box. They also run a lot of vertical routes from out there, so the people who are covering them get pretty isolated, because they're far away from split safety or middle of the field safety.

"It is very challenging, and the thing that's going to be really important is to not give up explosive plays, which was a real issue for us a year ago."

All three Vols running backs had gains of more than 10 yards in last Saturday's 20-13 topping of Texas A&M, as did quarterback Joe Milton III. Texas A&M traveled to Knoxville allowing just 84.0 rushing yards per game, but Tennessee amassed 232 on 49 carries, dropping the Aggies to an average of 105.14 yards yielded per contest.

Alabama ranks 19th nationally against the run, allowing 104.43 yards per game, one spot ahead of Texas A&M.

"Their O-line blocks together well as a unit," Lawson said. "They're physical up front and have good running backs. I think they just play together.

"It will be a challenge, but we have good interior D-linemen who can hold their gap, which makes it easier for me to flow in and make the tackle."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

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