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Tennessee football: How will Vols’ secondary limit big plays from Will Levis?

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The most obvious answer to this question is for Tennessee football to turn loose its pass rush. Byron Young is elite, and this is the type of game where he should shine since the Kentucky Wildcats have allowed 26 sacks.

However, Kentucky quarterback Will Levis is elite and has real NFL potential. He’s going to have some chances to make big plays. Meanwhile, the Vols secondary has been at best mediocre as of recent.

So how do they slow down Levis? Well, part of it is getting more players back and healthy, as Josh Heupel alluded to in Wednesday’s SEC Teleconference.

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“I just want to see everybody healthy and get everybody on the field at the same time and be able to rotate our guys,” he said. “Obviously we’ve been nicked up in that area for a multitude of reasons here over the last four or five weeks.” 

Being short-handed includes the loss of Warren Burrell to a season-ending injury and Jaylen McCollough missing the last two games due to an off-the-field issue. However Christian Charles and Kamal Hadden are banged up as well.

Brandon Turnage got hurt against the UT-Martin Skyhawks but should be okay. If he, Charles and Hadden return, that helps out at cornerback. However, Heupel acknowledged they can improve a lot too.

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“For us defensively, on the coverage side of it, we can continue to be more disciplined in our zone coverage, pattern-reading and thinking,” he said. “Then when we’re playing man defense, we’ve got to do a better job of matching them out and playing with good technique, if we’re in press coverage and same thing when we’re in off coverage.”

Each of the last four quarterbacks to face Tennessee football has thrown for at least 300 yards. Two of the four have thrown for at least 400 yards.

In spite of no pass protection and no real mobility, Levis has completed 69.5 percent of his passes for 1,635 yards and 13 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He is averaging 10 yards a completion.

“Will’s got great arm talent and can push the ball vertically and horizontally,” Heupel said. “You’ve got to defend all the field zones when you’re playing against him. He’s a really good decision-maker and I think has complete command of what they’re doing offensively.”

In Kentucky’s one game without Levis, they lost to the South Carolina Gamecocks. He has been banged up all year but is coming off a bye, so he should be healthy.

Last year, Levis was 31-of-49 for 372 yards and three touchdowns against the Vols. He also ran for 47 yards, one of the best rushing performances of his career. He did throw a pick-six, though, which cost them the game 45-42.

However, Alontae Taylor, now a starting cornerback in the NFL, had that interception. He is no longer there, and Burrell, the starter on the other side from last year, being hurt, makes this very different.

“I think he does a lot of things in the run game for them, too, on early downs, but does a great job on play-action pass and he does have some weapons out on the perimeter,” Heupel said of Levis. “You definitely don’t want to let those guys get started.”

Indeed, getting that run game going helps with Chris Rodriguez Jr. back, and he had over 100 yards against the Vols last year. Then there is Kentucky’s tempo.

With an offense reliant on two elite players in the backfield, Kentucky will try to slow the game down, exactly the opposite of what the Vols do. Heupel noted they didn’t do a great job in part of last year’s game dealing with that.

“Your possessions will probably be less frequent, so you’ve got to maximize your opportunities,” he said. “That’s true whether you’re getting 10 or 11 possessions in a game or getting 14. The tempo in this one, obviously we’ve got to get drives started. We’ve got to play from ahead of the chains.”

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