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Return of Sutton would give Vols big boost

By Steve Megargee

Associated Press

Knoxville, Tenn. — The return of some familiar faces has Tennessee’s defense feeling better about itself.

Tennessee’s injury-riddled defense recently welcomed back linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. back from a high ankle sprain. The defense could regain one of its captains Saturday against Kentucky, as senior cornerback Cam Sutton has returned to practice and is a game-time decision after missing six games with a fractured ankle.

That defense produced its first shutout of the season last week as Tennessee (6-3, 2-3 SEC) ended a three-game losing streak with a 55-0 blowout of Football Championship Subdivision program Tennessee Tech.

 “The players are gaining some confidence,” defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. “A shutout is hard against anybody.”

Tennessee faces a much stronger test Saturday.

Kentucky (5-4, 4-3) has averaged 270.8 yards rushing over its last four games and has a pair of 600-yard rushers in Benny Snell (122 carries, 639 yards) and Stanley “Boom” Williams (92-623). Kentucky successfully utilizes a “Wildcat” formation that produces a direct snap to the running back.

Snell, who has been particularly effective in the Wildcat, says Kentucky’s rushing attack could offer even more different looks.

“We have a lot up our sleeve, but that’s just for the field to show,” Snell said.

Tennessee allows 4.5 yards per carry. Five different individuals ran for at least 100 yards against Tennessee during its three-game skid that included losses to No. 10Texas A&M (No. 8 College Football Playoff), No. 1 Alabama (No. 1) and South Carolina.

Shoop notes those numbers are skewed by the number of big plays Tennessee has allowed.

Tennessee opponents have attempted 380 rushes this season. Shoop says he has analyzed the film and believes Tennessee played “pretty big-league” defense on 358 of those plays but has been “as bad as bad can be” on the other 22.

The Vols have allowed 14 runs from scrimmage of 20-plus yards, including six of 40-plus yards and four of 60-plus yards. Nine of those 14 long runs came against Alabama and Texas A&M.

“We haven’t played poor run defense except for those two games,” Shoop said.

Tennessee has dealt with plenty of injuries on defense, though Kirkland’s return has helped in that regard. Kirkland missed five games before making a team-high eight tackles in a 24-21 loss at South Carolina. Kirkland also played against Tennessee Tech, though the one-sided nature of that game allowed the Vols to turn to their substitutes early.

“Playing linebacker, repetition is the biggest thing… Everything has to be consistent,” Kirkland said. “I lost a little bit of that as I was out for those six weeks. It definitely helped those last two games getting back in and getting some real game reps and getting some practice reps as well. I’m getting a lot more confident.”

Sutton’s return to practice offers more reason for optimism, though his status for Saturday’s game remains uncertain.

The losses continued this week as Tennessee coach Butch Jones announced that safety Evan Berry would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

“The way we’ve handled adversity this year, I’ve played sports since I was five years old, and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” defensive end LaTroy Lewis said.

Follow Steve Megargee at www.twitter.com/stevemegargee