Tuesday Lunch: Defending the defense

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The agenda of the Tuesday UC media luncheon should have read something like this:

1:30 p.m.-2 p.m.: Mongolian Beef buffet

2 p.m.- 2:30 p.m.: Defend the defense

There were no secrets about what the popular topic of discussion would be at Butch Jones' press conference. People want answers regarding the defense's struggles at Tennessee and they want them now.

All fair.

Jones didn't duck the disappointment or pretend the problems were no big deal. He was concerned about the mental errors, but not losing faith. He opened by declaring a new sense of urgency has arrived in the wake of Knoxville.

"We took a step back a little bit fundamentally," Jones said. "I still think it is very young in the season. Everyone around here wants to hit the big red button that says panic. There is no panic here. It is continuing to develop. We have to get some things cleared up. I thought the lack of maturity to overcome and persevere on a lot of things (was disappointing)."

The defense failures weren't just about coaching or execution or missed tackles or missed assignments. It was a combination of a lot of things, according to Jones.

Without doubt, the film room the last few days have been filed somewhere under "Teachable Moments." Jones sees the ability for those to pay off on significant improvements as the season goes along.

He pointed out the secondary certainly has its issues, but every aspect of the unit was a disappointment. He mentioned in 40 pass attempts the Bearcats only managed three QB hits.

Despite the doom and gloom hovering over Nippert Stadium from outsiders, Jones sees the silver lining.

"The first three or four games are about developing your team," he said. "You came in and watch film and communicate and ask what are you thinking? Why are you making these mistakes? We turned a guy, just scot-free in man coverage by a player always there consistently. Our kids are very prideful. They know why the mistakes occurred and they can tell you why they made the mistakes and that is part of becoming better. Now we just have to take it to the field."

Perhaps a bigger question for a unit that spent last year at the bottom of most Big East defensive categories is the psychological impact of Saturday's performance as the team goes forward. Will this make them start to question what they're being told? Do they believe they are better? Will a lack of confidence seep into the helmet?

"Football is so much mental," Jones said. "Confidence plays a big part in it. Also, we sat in the room with our entire defense and went through the entire game film position by position, so they understand the inner-workings of all 11. Not just the d-line and linebackers...They look at it and gain confidence because a lot of the errors sometimes weren't physical errors, they were mental errors. You got to point out your mistakes and you have to come back to work."

--- UC comes back to work without S Malcolm Murray. The JuCo transfer tore his ACL last Wednesday and will miss the remainder of the season. He was a reserve safety and pushes sophomore Arryn Chenault up into a more prominent position behind Drew Frey.

--- Jones said the kickoff position is open after Tony Miliano struggled with hang time and placement. Punter Pat O'Donnell will be competing with Miliano for the kickoff duties.

Through two games UC ranks 76th nationally with a 63.3 yard average per kick. Of 17 kickoffs only two have gone for touchbacks (11.7 percent) and one out of bounds.

The kickoff concerns are even more obvious because of what UC lost. K Jake Rogers booted 27 percent of kickoffs into the end zone last season. That was good for 17th in the country.

--- Jones was complementary of WR Kenbrell Thompkins. He had four receptions for 58 yards at Rocky Top.

"I thought Kenbrell took some huge strides. I thought he played with much greater effort. He blocked extremely well."

--- As always, loved chatting with Isaiah Pead. I'm working him into a story I'm writing on the offensive line. (Who can tell you where every all-you-can-eat buffet of significance is located by each day of the week. You will spot them tonight at Quaker Steak & Lube).

The pressure is starting to build for his first carry of the Akron game. With a first-carry touchdown in each of the first two games for a combined 105 yards, the anticipation only builds with each passing game.

"Any long run is a special moment, because you live for those as a home-run hitter. It was another one of those where in the locker room the lineman said, 'You want to score on the first play again?' (Alex) Hoffman asked me, I said if you want to, I am down for it."

But can he duplicate it?

"Three for three would be great," Pead said. "I guess it is starting to become routine. Put a little bit of pressure on the first play, but hey, I am up for the pressure all the time."

As I mentioned in yesterday's Breakfast, Pead leads the nation in yards per carry at 11.5 (minimum 15 carries). That number almost certainly has to come down over time, but to put it into perspective: The top yards per carry over the past five years for a player averaging at least 10 carries per game was Felix Jones averaging 8.74 for Arkansas in 2006.

Starting to think about Pead comparisons a bit, what about former Cal RB Jahvid Best? The current Lions RB averaged 8.14 yards per carry in 2008 (194 carries in 12 games) for one of the best home-run hitter seasons for a running back in recent memory. Both Pead (5-11, 198) and Best (5-10, 199) come with similar speed and build. Plus, you look at Pead's numbers in the biggest games and that should eliminate any concern over inflating numbers against poor competition.

Between Oklahoma and Tennessee last year - without doubt UC's top two opponents faced over that span - he rushed 35 times for 324 yards. That's a 9.26 ypc clip.

"He's one of the best backs in the country," Jones said. "He's as focused of a player as we have."

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