Key matchup

It's a safe bet that Alabama will try to rely on workhorse tailback Kenneth Darby in Saturday's game with Tennessee. It's an even safer bet that the Vols will crowd the line of scrimmage and try to neutralize Darby.

That means the outcome probably will hinge on how well the Tide's standout receivers fare against the Vols' veteran secondary.

UT fans know all about D.J. Hall. His 43-yard reception in the final minutes set up Bama's game-winning field goal in last year's 6-3 win at Tuscaloosa. Hall is hurting a lot of opponents this year, averaging an eye-popping 20.8 yards per catch (29 receptions, 603 yards) with five touchdown grabs.

Opponents who double-team Hall risk being burned by Keith Brown, who has caught a team-high 37 passes for 513 yards (13.9 per catch) and three TDs.

As a tandem, Hall and Brown rank fourth nationally in receiving yards at 159.4 per game. Clearly, Tennessee could get scorched if it focuses too much attention on Darby and not enough on Hall/Brown.

"You can't load the box and leave guys one-on-one out there all day," Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis notes. "You've got to be able to mix it up and pick and choose what you do because they can hurt you throwing the football."

Of course, Tennessee can hurt you throwing the ball, as well. In fact, UT's Robert Meachem and Jayson Swain rank No. 2 nationally as a pass-catching tandem. Going against them in practice each day is a good tune-up for facing Hall and Brown.

"We've gone against good receivers, so we won't be shocked," Chavis says. "We go against good receivers every day. These guys are really good, so it won't be any different. Hopefully, we'll be able to respond to it."

Tennessee's secondary is still adjusting to the loss of starting cornerback Inquoris Johnson to a Game 2 shoulder injury. Because they've had to revamp their defensive backfield, the Vols rank seventh among SEC teams in pass defense efficiency and eighth in third-down conversion defense.

"We've shaken the whole thing up," Chavis concedes.

Although the numbers are unimpressive, Tennessee's pass defense has been pretty solid since Johnson's departure. Antwan Stewart moved from strong safety to fill the void at corner and sophomore Demetrice Morley stepped into Stewart's former role. Both have proved capable.

"Stewart's done a good job at corner," Chavis says. "Morley has grown a little bit each week. There obviously was a reason why he wasn't starting but he's grown and is playing really good football for us right now."

Head coach Phillip Fulmer also is pleased with the secondary's play.

"Jon Hefney's played really consistent," the head man says. "Antwan has taken the challenge to move out there to cornerback and do a good job. Jon Wade has some dynamics about him. If he would learn to be more consistent he would be an exceptional football player. Demetrice … the more he plays the more comfortable he gets."

"Even with the injury (to Johnson), that's a solid group of guys. I see Antonio Wardlow making strides back there, and that's good to see. Marsalous Johnson is making some strides."

Chavis says Johnson and converted receiver Ricardo Kemp are just about ready to play significant backup roles at cornerback.

"They're close," the coordinator notes. "They've played some snaps. I think they're ready to do certain things. I feel real comfortable with them doing certain things."

Overall, Chavis says secondary coach Larry Slade "has done a tremendous job. I don't think he gets enough credit for what he does with our guys in the secondary. Without question, it's the lead unit on our defense. We'd be really sad thinking where we were if those guys hadn't played as well as they have."

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