KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee players will need to be on the same page defensively Labor Day night against the Georgia Tech triple-option offense.

Second-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has been stressing communication for some time in defending the unique attack that’s had success against other SEC teams. Tech went 3-0 against the SEC in 2016.

“One of the things that I try to talk about all the time, as a coach, is your vocabulary,” Shoop said. “I talk about speaking the same language defensively. Singing the same song and singing the same tune. That’s what we’ve been trying to do. I think we’ve really improved on that.”

Shoop feels like his defense has “done a great job coaching each other up and helping each other out” leading up to the first game.

Coaches always preach “gap integrity” and “do your job,” but rarely is that more critical than facing an attack like Tech’s, which exploits defensive breakdowns and miscommunications at an alarming rate.

"Any wrong read or any wrong footstep or anything that's off can get you beat."
Vols linebacker Cortez McDowell

Year
SEC team
Tech rushing yards
Score
2016
Vanderbilt
289
GT won 38-7
2016
Georgia
226
GT won 28-27
2016
Kentucky (bowl)
266
GT won 33-18
2015
Georgia
194
GT lost 13-7
2014
Georgia
399
GT won 30-24 (OT)
2014
Miss. State (bowl)
452
GT won 49-34
2013
Georgia
263
GT lost 41-34 (2 OT)
2013
Ole Miss (bowl)
151
GT lost 25-17

In particular, Shoop praised players for buying in, coaching one another and being more prepared. “You can’t get 40 guys ready to play,” he said, “but you can get 22-25 guys ready.”

“Defense is a little different than offense,” he said. “A lot of guys play no matter what. We feel like we have a pretty good two-deep lineup right now and maybe even then some.

“The guys have all practiced well and have been very competitive, so that’s been healthy. The competitive piece is something we’ve emphasized this whole offseason. So hopefully it will continue all season. It’s not that we’re trying to make guys uncomfortable, but we want them to compete every day to be the best player they can be.”

In the Georgia Tech triple-option offense, there are two A-backs who line up in the slots — as a slot receiver would do in a pro-style offense. The A-backs go in motion, and the quarterback can pitch to them or fake the pitch and keep the ball. The A-backs can also become receivers.

The B-back is lined-up as a traditional tailback and must possess speed, toughness and durability. It is a position that requires ball security, hitting the hole at full speed, reading who is blocking for you, selling a fake hand-off on a pass play, and blocking at all times when the ball is not in your hands.

Then you have the quarterback and wide receivers who can provide different elements within the Georgia Tech triple-option offense. The quarterback can keep the ball and run, pitch to the backs or throw to the outside receivers and stretch the field. The receivers also play a vital role in blocking.

Last year, Georgia Tech opened the game against Vanderbilt with an 81-yard touchdown pass on its first play.

Shoop understands that quarterbacks Matthew Jordan and TaQuon Marshall are both excellent runners. “Jordan is more of an interior runner and TaQuan is a former running back that they made a quarterback,” he said.

Jordan brings the most experience to the first game at quarterback, replacing the graduated Justin Thomas from 2016. Jordan is a bigger, more physical-type quarterback, similar to Josh Nesbitt. He filled in for Thomas last season when the Yellow Jackets traveled to Virginia Tech. Jordan led Georgia Tech to a 30-20 upset over the No. 14 Hokies in Blacksburg, rushing for 121 yards on 32 carries and scoring two touchdowns with only seven passing attempts.

Monday night, Tech will be without leading rusher Dedrick Mills, but the beauty of Paul Johnson’s system is he doesn’t rely on one guy.

“It doesn’t affect them one bit,” Butch Jones said. “They have a system that’s challenging, and they have good players and a very solid defense and good special teams,” he said. “This is a complete football team that we’re playing, we prepare the same way, so it doesn’t affect our mindset our how we look at things.”

Tech’s B-backs block when they don’t have the ball. Rotating fresh backs is a point of emphasis. Redshirt sophomores in Quaide Weimerskirch and KirVonte Benson and incoming freshman Jerry Howard will play roles in Mills’ absence.

At the A-back position the Yellow Jackets return their top three guys in Clinton Lynch, J.J. Green and Qua Searcy. Redshirt sophomores Nathan Cottrell and Omahri Jarrett could also emerge this season. Cottrell, who is from Knoxville and played at West High School, was not recruited by the Volunteers.

“Searcy and those guys at the slot are all really good,” Shoop said. “JJ Green transferred from Georgia and the one has missed some time but No. 22 averages 11 yards a carry, 30 yards a reception, so that has my attention, I promise.

“They are good players, their slots, their quarterbacks, their running backs and their receivers are all very talented. He (Paul Johnson) will always have a fullback, they have talked about a true freshman playing and we’ve watched all the guys. (KirVonte) Benson had a good spring game and they’ve had some other guys at the fullback position that are very good players. Coach Johnson knows how to utilize his talent.”

Still the point of emphasis for the Volunteers defense is watching the quarterback’s move after snap and seeing where the ball will go. With Jordan having minimal game experience, his confidence in reading where the linebackers are and pitching at the last second will be tested.

“It makes you stay focused,” linebacker Cortez McDowell said. “Any wrong read or any wrong footstep or anything that’s off can get you beat. So it’s everybody just being locked in and owning their own responsibilities to help us be successful.”

Jones echoed his linebacker’s thoughts, admitting it is “a challenge.”

“We’re only going to see this offense one time the entire year, and we have a short turnaround playing a Monday night game,” Jones said.

“Obviously, they’ve run that offense for so long, and they know where to attack. So again, it’s a balancing act for our players. You have to rely on maturity, and then it’s also the fundamentals and details that are critical as well.”