KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s defense is receiving plenty of unwanted opportunities to showcase its improved depth.
Injuries have sidelined three of Tennessee’s top defensive players at various points in the season, yet the 11th-ranked Volunteers remain unbeaten thanks to contributions from backups who have stepped in as capable replacements.
“With all the injuries and stuff that we’ve seen, the next man that’s behind that guy has stepped in and just played tremendous,” linebacker Cortez McDowell said.
Tennessee (4-0, 1-0 SEC) will need to keep that going Saturday when it visits No. 25 Georgia (3-1, 1-1) without the services of linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. and cornerback Cam Sutton. Kirkland will miss a third straight game with a high ankle sprain and Sutton will sit out his second game since fracturing his right ankle.
The Vols are hoping to have linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin back for Georgia after he missed the majority of Tennessee’s last two games with a shoulder injury.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Wednesday night on his “Vol Calls” radio show that Reeves-Maybin “had another MRI so we’re waiting on word from there to see how his health is progressing.”
Reeves-Maybin and Sutton were selected as team captains before the season along with quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Alvin Kamara. Kirkland was Tennessee’s leading tackler before his injury.
“A lot of teams cannot recover from that,” Jones said. “We’ve had some individuals step up and play winning football for us. … I’ve been real proud of these individuals for stepping up because those are three great football players that you take out of your lineup. It’s hard to replace those three.”
The reinforcements have included McDowell and Colton Jumper.
McDowell has stepped in for Reeves-Maybin and has 21 tackles, one off the team lead. McDowell and Quart’e Sapp were both expected to back up Reeves-Maybin at weak-side linebacker, but Sapp tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Tennessee’s second game, knocking him out for the remainder of the season.
Jumper, a former walk-on, had a team-high eight tackles Saturday in a 38-28 victory over No. 23 Florida while filling in for Kirkland at Mike linebacker. Jumper had been Tennessee’s season-opening starter last year before moving to a reserve role, but he has played much better this year.
“That (experience) helps really with the nerves, coming into it,” Jumper said. “Just having starts under my belt and having some game reps, that really helps. … I think my confidence level has gone up a little bit, and that helps a lot.”
Sutton’s injury has represented the biggest loss for Tennessee’s defense so far, and the four-year starter isn’t coming back anytime soon. Jones said Wednesday “there is a possibility that he may be able to get back for maybe the last couple of games of the year.”
Florida exposed Sutton’s absence last week with a couple of deep passes that set up the Gators’ first two touchdowns as Tennessee fell behind 21-0. But the defense played much better later as Tennessee rallied.
Freshman cornerback Baylen Buchanan, the son of former NFL defensive back Ray Buchanan, is expected to make his first career start Saturday as Tennessee attempts to replace Sutton. Justin Martin had started in Sutton’s old spot last week but struggled early in the Florida game.
While all these injuries have forced backups into bigger roles, Tennessee’s remaining healthy starters also have picked up the slack. Nobody has contributed more in that regard than defensive end Derek Barnett, who recorded two sacks against Florida to increase his career total to 22.
“He means as much to this team and this unit as any player on any team on any unit,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said.
Barnett passes the credit around by pointing out the way the rest of the defense has performed.
“We lost a few guys, but its next man up,” Barnett said. “It just goes to show we have a lot of young guys in this program who are very talented. They’ve all stepped up and really played well.”
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