Vols readying for another ‘phone booth’ meeting against Kentucky

Tennessee Athletics photo by Emma Corona / Tennessee fifth-year senior nose tackle Elijah Simmons is welcoming this week's challenge of stopping Kentucky's physical ground attack.
Tennessee Athletics photo by Emma Corona / Tennessee fifth-year senior nose tackle Elijah Simmons is welcoming this week's challenge of stopping Kentucky's physical ground attack.

Competing against Kentucky during the Mark Stoops era has often been described as playing in a phone booth.

The Wildcats aren't looking for countless plays out on the perimeter. They want to pound opponents between the tackles, thus the confined space reference, and that has Tennessee fifth-year senior nose tackle Elijah Simmons excited about Saturday night's venture to Kroger Field.

"I love being in the trenches," Simmons said in a news conference. "I love stopping the run and just being able to be physical like in those phone booths. It's something I look forward to."

Whether the 6-foot-2, 345-pounder from Memphis can actually fit into a phone booth is a story for another day, but Simmons and his defensive teammates are looking to bounce back from this past weekend's 34-20 loss at Alabama. The Volunteers limited Texas A&M to 54 rushing yards and 1.9 yards per carry during their 20-13 downing of Texas A&M in Knoxville on Oct. 14, which was a triumph that contained plenty of old-school elements, but they could not repeat that dominance for all four quarters against the Crimson Tide.

Tennessee held Alabama to 17 first-half rushes for 16 yards, but Crimson Tide running back Jase McClellan bolted 29 yards on the first play of the third quarter and finished the afternoon with 115 yards on 27 carries.

The chief challenge Saturday (7 on ESPN) for the Vols will be slowing Kentucky fifth-year senior running back Ray Davis, a 5-10, 216-pounder from San Francisco. Davis is in his one and only season with the Wildcats after transferring from Vanderbilt, where he rushed for 1,042 yards last season.

Davis rushed for just 60 yards on 21 carries during Tennessee's 56-0 thrashing of the Commodores last November, but he enters this weekend leading the Southeastern Conference with 111.6 rushing yards per game and 7.0 yards a carry. The biggest chunk of his 781 yards occurred Sept. 30 against visiting Florida when he rushed 26 times for 280 yards (10.8 per carry) and three touchdowns during the surprising 33-14 slaughter of the Gators.

"You've got to stop him early at the line of scrimmage," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. "Their offensive line and their tight ends are extremely physical, and they do a really good job of getting a hat on a hat. We've got to be violent. We've got to be disruptive. We've got to have gap integrity between all of their different personnel groupings.

"With their shifts and their motions, we've got to do a great job communicating and being gapped-out, and when you meet the ball-carrier, you've got to do a great job of tackling, too, because he's extremely physical."

Tennessee linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary went a step further Tuesday, crediting the Wildcats with "one of the best rushing attacks in the country."

A physical ground assault has been synonymous with Kentucky under Stoops, who has developed two of the top three rushers in program history. Benny Snell gained 3,873 yards from 2016-18 to set the school standard, compiling three 1,000-yard seasons, while Chris Rodriguez amassed 3,644 yards from 2018 through last season.

Rodriguez scored Kentucky's only touchdown in last October's 44-6 loss to Tennessee inside Neyland Stadium, which was a victory so impressive for the Vols that it clinched their No. 1 standing in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings three days later. The Wildcats managed just 107 rushing yards in last year's matchup, with Rodriguez responsible for 64 on 15 carries.

The Vols will enter Lexington ranked 25th nationally in run defense, allowing 109.9 yards per game.

"They're just being very disruptive," Stoops said in his weekly news conference. "They're very good as a unit. I want to say they're allowing 310 yards per game. They've been very disruptive up front, getting a bunch of sacks.

"They're playing strong across the board."

Kentucky's success under Stoops — the Wildcats are currently 5-2 and are one win away from extending their program record to eight consecutive bowl appearances — has not carried over into its series against Tennessee, with the Wildcats just 2-8 during his tenure.

Vols defenders will soon head north looking to keep it that way with a primary focus on Davis.

"We have game plans and are ready to go out and face any challenges," Simmons said. "Kentucky has a great running back and a great offensive line, but our defensive line has shown we can play really good in the run game."

Said senior linebacker Aaron Beasley: "He's got a lot of highlights. He's a one-cut, get-downhill type of guy. He runs hard and is shifty. I like his game, and he'll be a big challenge for us for sure."

So, what happened?

Jean-Mary was asked Tuesday about what transpired in Saturday's second half, when the Crimson Tide outscored the Vols 27-0.

"You've got to give them all the credit in the world," he said. "They made minor adjustments and put us in different situations. The quarterback run game picked up in the second half that they didn't show in the first half, and we didn't do a good job of fitting that. The first run that happened was us, because we didn't fit that play.

"Outside of that first run, it was the quarterback in the second half. I thought we did a decent job on the McClellan kid, but he got out on the edge to score the touchdown in the second half, but that was us again in terms of not getting off the blocks."

Okoye progressing

Tennessee first-year tight ends coach Alec Abeln provided quite the preseason praise in August when he said that freshman Emmanuel Okoye could wind up being "the most athletic guy to ever play the position."

The 6-5, 230-pounder from Nigeria has yet to play this season, but Abeln provided a positive update Tuesday.

"It's fun to watch scout tape on Thursdays," he said. "He's continuing to get better, and some of that is just playing football. It takes a little bit of time, and when he does put it together, it's going to be really fun.

"At the beginning of camp, you're lining him up everywhere, and it's like totally drinking water through a fire hose. Now he's out there playing ball and making plays. It's been really positive to see his growth."

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

  photo  Kentucky Athletics photo / Kentucky fifth-year senior running back Ray Davis, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season at Vanderbilt, leads the Southeastern Conference with 111.6 yards per game. Elliott Hess | UK Athletics

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