Tennessee-Defense Story

BY foxsports • October 4, 2016

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee is unsure about the status of its two top linebackers as it prepares to visit Texas A&M in a matchup of undefeated teams.

Darrin Kirkland Jr. has missed three straight games with a high ankle sprain. Jalen Reeves-Maybin missed the entirety of a 34-31 triumph at Georgia last week after sitting out the majority of victories over Ohio and Florida.

That means No. 9 Tennessee (5-0, 2-0 SEC) again could be missing some of its best defensive performers when the Volunteers face No. 8 Texas A&M (5-0, 3-0). The Vols already are without cornerback Cam Sutton, who will miss a third straight game with a fractured right ankle.

Reeves-Maybin, the Vols' leading tackler last season, underwent an MRI last week. Reeves-Maybin and Sutton are two of Tennessee's four team captains.

''We're continuing to gather information on Jalen Reeves-Maybin and trying to make the best decision to present to him with his different options,'' coach Butch Jones said. ''I'll know a little bit more later in the week.''

Kirkland had a team-leading 16 tackles through the first two weeks of the season before getting hurt. Jones said Kirkland ran Thursday and Friday, and the team planned to put him through cutting drills Monday ''to see if he can match the movements that the linebacker position brings about, different bursts and accelerations.''

Jones said cornerback Justin Martin should be available this weekend after serving a suspension last week for a violation of team rules. He also said running back Jalen Hurd will be ''full go'' this week and available to play against Texas A&M after missing portions of the Georgia game for what was described as a ''lower extremity injury.''

The Aggies also have been dealing with injuries. Texas A&M beat South Carolina 24-13 last week without four injured starters, including 2015 SEC sacks leader Myles Garrett. The other Aggies to miss the game were offensive tackle Jermaine Eluemunor and receivers Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones.

Texas A&M didn't have a media availability Monday, so there was no update on the foursome's status for this week's game.

Tennessee thus far has withstood all the injuries on defense thanks largely to the performance of its front four. The deep defensive line has played its best late in games to help the Vols outscore opponents 76-21 in the fourth quarter and overtime.

''We're going to need our defensive front to be that way each and every week,'' Jones said.

The defensive line has benefited from being the healthiest element of Tennessee's defense, with the only notable injury being an ankle problem that sidelined end LaTroy Lewis against Ohio. Tennessee knew even before the season its defensive line would be a strength.

''Before all the injuries, that's what our goal was before the season started, to be a D-line-led team,' defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. ''When the pressure's on, we want it to be on our shoulders.''

That defensive line is led by Derek Barnett, who has recorded two sacks in each of Tennessee's last two games. Barnett sacked Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason and forced a fumble that defensive end Corey Vereen recovered in the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter last week.

But the injuries across the defense have made a difference, particularly in the secondary. Tennessee has allowed four pass completions of at least 40 yards the last two weeks. The Vols yielded just one pass completion of 40-plus yards in the three games that Sutton played.

Tennessee's secondary could face an even tougher challenge Saturday against a talented Texas A&M receiving corps, particularly if Seals-Jones and Noil are healthy enough to play.


AP college football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org

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