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October 28, 2010

Elliott: Vols Present Tough Test

As far as Shawn Elliott is concerned, what he sees on video from the Tennessee defense doesn't match up with the numbers.

The statistics tells him the Volunteers have one of the worst defenses in the SEC. But when he focuses on the experienced defensive front that features three seniors and a junior as starters, he can't understand how that is.

"They're a good, athletic defense," Elliott said Wednesday. "They can all run. They're tall lean guys. They run a lot of stunts. They're moving constantly. Without question, it's the most athletic defensive line we've seen this season. That's something that scares you. Their guys can move. They can play an inside technique and then all of a sudden they're rushing around the edge. They're tough just like every other team in the SEC. We have our work cut out for us.

"They're going to present problems for us. I know that for sure. We'll see how we react and respond to that problem they create."

All four of Tennessee's defensive linemen are 6-foot-3 or taller, led by tackle Malik Jackson, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 265 pounds. Nose tackle Victor Thomas weighs 293 pounds.

Lack of experienced depth is the most likely culprit as to why Tennessee hasn't performed well on defense this season. Even though the Vols have five senior starters in the front seven, four backups are freshmen, including former Byrnes standout Corey Miller.

Middle linebacker Nick Reveiz, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship in 2009, leads Tennessee with 65 tackles. He's averaging 9.3 tackles per game, third highest in the SEC.

One area where Tennessee hasn't been productive this season is pressuring the quarterback. The Vols have a league-low eight sacks compared to 24 for USC.

"They've gotten worn down a little bit, but they have great talent on the defensive side of the ball," Elliott said. "They've been in every ball game they've played. It's going to be a tough challenge for us."

Elliott should rely on the same core group of blockers that he has all season. In fact, he could start the same five linemen for the fourth straight week - LT Jarriel King, LG Garrett Chisolm, C T.J. Johnson, RG Rokevious Watkins and RT Hutch Eckerson.

With no serious injuries to speak of, the O-Line should be ready to roll.

"We're in pretty good shape," Elliott said. "We don't have any big injury concerns."

Kyle Nunn and Terrence Campbell should also see action at tackle and guard, respectively.

King will be making his 25th career start for the Gamecocks, most of them at left tackle. But he's just one of three offensive linemen who have started 20 or more games in their careers.

One of the linemen with 20+ career starts is redshirt sophomore center T.J. Johnson, who started all 13 games at right guard in 2009 before transitioning to center in the spring. When it comes to shotgun snaps, he still throws an occasional "high, hard one," but overall he's adapted well.

"He's done pretty well," Elliott said. "When we first put the ball in his hand, he had never played center before. We've told him to take just a little bit off the snaps. I wouldn't say he's high-strung, but when you put a 300-pound defender over you, you grip that ball a little tighter and tense up a little bit more. That's something we have to work on, but he's constantly working on it before practice. It's an issue because we don't like those minus-24 yards on a high snap. We have to get that corrected. But he's working on it and that's all we can do right now.

With his size (6-foot-5, 324 pounds) and agility, King has the NFL scouts drooling over his pro prospects.

"He's an athletic guy, he can run," Elliott said. "He's pretty physical. He's playing pretty well right now. He hasn't made a bunch of mistakes. He's coming along."

The offensive line is coming off a performance in Nashville that Elliott described as a tale of two halves." They struggled in the first half before bouncing back in the second when USC put 14 points on the board.

"I thought they had a horrible first quarter and weren't very focused and ready to play," Elliott said. "As the game progressed, they got better in the second quarter. When we had that drive at the end of the second quarter, we had no missed assignments. In the second half I thought we played pretty well. They made some blocks and carved out some running room for Brian Maddox. They had a much better second half than they had a first half."

Elliott said the offensive line accepted blame for the fact starting running back Kenny Miles struggled at the outset of the game to gain meaningful yards.

"If there are holes up there, the backs will find them," Elliott said. "It's hard to go running into nothing. We have to consistently open holes for whoever is back there. It just didn't happen in the first quarter when Kenny got an opportunity. You can put that on the backs of the offensive line. We have to open holes for those guys."

What does Elliott want to see first and foremost from his unit? Focus for four quarters. That's happened in a couple of games this season, but not enough for Elliott's liking.

"We have yet to put it together game to game to game," Elliott. "We've missed some reads we should have picked up. We have to get a lot better. There's plenty of room for improvement."

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