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Weis prepares for vaunted Vols defense

Matt Puglisi | Friday, November 4, 2005

Tennessee offensive coordinator Randy Sanders resigned Monday. The Volunteers have not settled on a permanent quarterback between senior Rick Clausen and sophomore Erik Ainge. And a seasoning-ending injury to the team’s starting running back, Gerald Riggs, Jr., has left the offense in dire straits.

But for all of Tennessee’s offensive problems, nobody is questioning its defense.

“I’d say this is as good a defense, if not the best defense, we’ve played this year,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “I have no problem saying that. This is as good a defense as … I’ve ever seen since I’ve been here.”

The numbers are impressive.

Entering tomorrow’s showdown with Notre Dame, the Tennessee defense is allowing 16.0 points per game (ninth lowest in the nation) and 293.9 total yards per game (No. 12). The Volunteers have been particularly stingy against the running game, holding opponents to only 85.6 yards per contest (No. 5). That includes 132 total rushing yards combined by South Carolina (65 yards) and Alabama (67 yards) in their last two games.

Tennessee hasn’t carried the same stifling defense to pass coverage, where the Vols are currently yielding just over 200 yards a game (208.3) though the air, only No. 44 in the nation.

But the secondary has given up just three passing touchdowns through the season’s first seven games.

The success of the Tennessee defense starts with the hard-nosed, gritty play of the team’s four primary defensive linemen: left end Parys Haralson, left tackle Justin Harrell, right tackle Jesse Mahelona and right end Jason Hall.

“Those guys can play almost any other position on the field, with as fast as they are,” Irish quarterback Brady Quinn said after watching film.

“They can get pressure on you with only rushing four,” Weis said. “Not that they don’t blitz, because they blitz plenty. Any time you can rush just four and get pressure on the quarterback, that already gives you an advantage. But they are physical up front, both as pass-rushers and in the run game. They move around a lot.”

Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer echoed Weis’ sentiments, also pointing to the pressure created by the front four as the key of the Tennessee defense.

“Our front is where it starts,” Fulmer said. “Our defensive football team has played consistent.”

Leading the team with 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, Haralson has anchored a line that has provided constant pressure all season. Weis likened the undersized Haralson (248 pounds) to New York Giants standout left end Michael Strahan, who set an NFL record with 22.5 sacks in 2001.

“First of all, he looks bigger than 248 to me,” Weis said. “I used to say the same thing about Michael Strahan with the Giants. He’s I think listed at about 260 pounds. You sit there and say, ‘They play the same position, they’re over at that left defensive end on our right. Why are they such good players?’

“There’s really two reasons when a guy is undersized: ‘A,’ they’re dynamic pass-rushers. ‘B,’ they play with leverage. I think [Haralson] does both. I think he’s a very good pass-rusher and he plays with leverage.”

An athletic linebacking unit led by leading tackler Kevin Simon (63 tackles) couples with a quick, tall secondary that has, for the most part, managed to prevent the big play.

“They have an experienced group of linebackers behind them that is there to make plays on top of it before you even get to the speed in the secondary,” Weis said. “You got speed in the secondary, you got experienced, athletic linebackers and a front four that’s pretty dominant. I think that’s a very good combination.”