In the heart of Tennessee's football season, the heart of the Volunteers defense has been somewhat silent.
Fifth-year senior linebacker Aaron Beasley leads the No. 21 Vols with 45 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss entering Saturday night's game (7 on ESPN) at Kentucky. Those numbers through seven games are plenty good, but good was not the goal for the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder from Franklin, Georgia.
"I'm an Aaron Beasley fan, and I feel like he's one of the better linebackers in the conference," Vols linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary said this week in a news conference. "The biggest thing with him, and I tell him, is just to empty his tank. I still think there is an even better football player out there than what he's shown."
Beasley is not disagreeing with that assessment.
Of his 8.5 lost-yardage stops, five came in the 30-13 downing of Austin Peay on Sept. 9, so just 3.5 have occurred in Tennessee's six contests against fellow Football Bowl Subdivision programs. Beasley did not have any tackles for loss in last Saturday's 34-20 loss at Alabama or during the 20-13 topping of Texas A&M the week before.
"I feel like I've had an OK season, personally," Beasley said. "I feel like I can keep getting better and be more disciplined. I haven't been as disciplined as I should have been the past couple of weeks.
"Being more disciplined would help me be more comfortable out there."
Beasley tallied five tackles and a lost-yardage stop during last season's 44-6 rout of Kentucky inside Neyland Stadium and absolutely erupted in the 31-14 downing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, racking up 12 tackles and four tackles for loss, two of which were sacks.
The Associated Press named Beasley to its All-Bowl Team, but he has just two sacks this season, with both coming against the Governors, who compete in the Football Championship Subdivision.
"I tell anybody that he's one of the better linebackers in the conference, but there are still plays he can go out there and make, game-changing plays," Jean-Mary said. "He has that kind of ability, and we challenge him every week to go out there and be the difference.
"We want to see him help us obviously go win on the road in some of these hostile environments."
Still on hold
Freshman tight end Ethan Davis played five snaps during Tennessee's opening 49-13 rout of Virginia, but that remains the only action this season for the four-star signee from the Atlanta suburb of Suwanee.
"He's doing a great job," Vols first-year tight ends coach Alec Abeln said. "When he got here in the spring, the challenge was learning the offense, being able to operate and being able to understand where you're supposed to be and what your assignment is. He's been really good mentally at doing that.
"I think it's the physical development and just getting big enough and strong enough to be able to play in this league. To be honest, the injuries in spring and the injuries in summer made it tough for him to play at a certain weight and hold up in this conference."
Two sixth-year seniors, Jacob Warren and McCallan Castles, have combined for all 20 catches for 211 yards and five touchdowns at that position so far.
Tennessee's average of 438.1 yards per game is well off last year's 525.5-yard clip that led the nation, but Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday on the Southeastern Conference teleconference that he is just as impressed with this season's Vols, who average 217.3 rushing and 220.9 passing yards per contest.
"Balance is key, and they're pretty darn balanced," Stoops said. "Joe Milton is playing at a very high level, and he's an experienced guy. He's been around, and they always have dynamic playmakers.
"I think their running backs don't get talked about enough. They're all very talented and very dangerous when they get to the second and third levels."
Odds and ends
Tennessee has played Kentucky more than any other opponent and holds a commanding 83-26-9 series advantage that includes a 35-3 mark since 1985. ... Milton has thrown a touchdown pass in 11 consecutive games to match the longest streak Peyton Manning had with the Vols (Hendon Hooker holds the school record at 20). ... The Vols have a combined eight takeaways in their last four games.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].