Tennessee announced earlier this week its football game against Ole Miss on Saturday was sold out and predicted a raucous environment for a visit from the Rebels and Coach Lane Kiffin, who was UT’s coach in 2009.
Neyland Stadium will be full for the first time since Sept. 20, 2017.
The atmosphere might feel different than anything Matthew Butler has experienced here.
Regardless, it shouldn’t change the Vols senior defensive tackle, not in the slightest manner. So said UT defensive coordinator Tim Banks.
“His one rep in practice,” Banks said, “looks exactly like his one rep on Saturdays.”
Banks credited Butler’s attention to such a small detail as reflective of his “warrior” practice mentality. But he’s also repping to the beat of Banks and his defensive staff. They have processed a unit depleted first by attrition and now injuries into an effective complement to Tennessee’s explosive offense.
The defense will face its greatest challenge to date against a Rebels offense led by quarterback Matt Corral, who’s a Heisman Trophy candidate. Ole Miss operates at a tempo slightly quicker than even Tennessee’s breakneck pace, averaging 2.89 plays per minute. UT’s average is 2.87.
That’s a lot of reps for a defender. At least Butler is used to it from practice, which he takes as seriously as games.
“When you go into something, you always think about the result,” he said. “Oh, we’re going into a game, we want to win. Oh, I’m going into practice, I want to excel. Oh, I’m going into this meal, I want to be full. Whatever the case may be.
“But when you break it down into the process and then simplify that in your mind. Like for me, go out there I’m going to stay vertical. I’m going to take good steps. I’m going to use my hands. I’m going to flip my hips. Rather than saying I’m going to have a good practice.”
Butler’s approach has been better informed by coaching. In this case, it’s primarily line coach Rodney Garner.
“When I first got here, I was just kind of out there, you know what I mean?” Butler said. “But now it’s like you get great coaching, you understand the concepts of the defense, you go out there and play hard and good things always happen.”
The coaching has helped the Vols replenish the linebacker corps, which was largely barren heading into the season. It was depleted further by the loss of Texas transfer Juwan Mitchell, who’s out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
Mitchell was the Longhorns leading tackler last season and was being counted on for help. In his absence, fellow linebackers Jeremy Banks, Aaron Beasley and Solon Page III comprise half of UT’s top six tacklers. Banks leads the team in tackles for loss (seven) and sacks 3.5.
The process mentality apparently is contagious – in a good way. When defensive back Theo Jackson, UT’s top tackler, learned he might not play last week due to injury, he watched video throughout the week with Brandon Turnage, who was slated to be Jackson’s replacement. Turnage had 14 tackles against South Carolina and was named SEC defensive player of the week.
Linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary referenced the tutelage and Jackson for being an unsung hero.
“That’s when you know you have good teamwork and you have a brotherhood.” Jean-Mary said.
Those qualities make for better Saturdays, regardless of the atmosphere.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.