“We were in a situation where either myself or Coach Brooks was going to have to take a couple of snaps at defensive tackle,” defensive coordinator John Chavis quipped. “I didn't want to get the school in trouble because both of us have used up our eligibility.”
Fortunately for Tennessee, the tackle trio of Dan Williams, Demonte Bolden and Walter Fisher got a little healthier during the bye week. That means neither Chavis nor defensive line coach Dan Brooks will be forced to take any snaps this Saturday at Vanderbilt.
“We've got some guys back that are going to be able to give us some more snaps,” Chavis said. “We're excited about that. And to get (defensive end Chris) Walker back, in the role that he's played, is a big plus for us. You need that speed on the edge.”
Another key for Tennessee's defense is the health of middle linebacker Ellix Wilson. Despite missing one game and playing hurt vs. Wyoming, he ranks third among SEC players with 75 tackles.
“Ellix is not 100 percent but he's going to be a lot closer,” Chavis said. “Watching him on film in the last game, we probably did him an injustice. We probably should not have played him. He'd given us all he had – there was nothing in the tank – but he was still going.”
Wilson has played through shoulder problems all season but only saw his production slip when leg problems cropped up in the past few weeks. Chavis conceded that it's almost impossible for a linebacker to play well “when those wheels aren't quite right ... but his legs are a lot better right now.”
Wilson will need good wheels to chase down Vandy's quarterback this weekend. Chris Nickson has the Commodores' longest scrimmage run this season (59 yards), leads the team in rushing touchdowns (6) and ranks second in rushing yards with 469.
“He's very mobile, runs the ball really well,” Chavis said. “They've kind of grown the package a little for him. He's going to stretch your defense.”
Although better known for his running, Nickson passes the ball reasonably well. In fact, his passer-efficiency rating of 112.8 is far superior to that of Vol starter Jonathan Crompton (93.73).
“He can throw the ball,” Chavis said of Nickson. “They've got good receivers that work well with him. They've got a good package, and it all centers around the quarterback playing well.
“When he's playing well they're very difficult to stop. I think you saw them possibly at their best last week (in a 31-24 win at Kentucky).”
Whereas Vandy's offense was at its best last weekend, Tennessee's defense was at its worst last weekend. Chavis and Brooks just can't fill a gap the way they used to.