Tennessee's defense: Good, but Vols know they can play even better
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s defense hasn’t necessarily been a blueprint model for 60 minutes in all four games, but at key points in key situations, it has been a championship-type defense.
That’s why Team 120 is sitting at 4-0 and ranked No. 11 heading into October.
Time and again, the defense has kept games close enough for the offense to eventually win.
It kept Appalachian State scoreless with eight minutes remaining in the second quarter of the opening game, shut down Virginia Tech following a first quarter 14-0 deficit, holding off Ohio in a 28-19 victory, and most recently stopped Florida after a 21-0 deficit.
The Vols’ defense has recorded 25 TFL’s for negative 63 yards and 5 sacks.
The defensive line has been a centerpiece for Tennessee’s ability to adjust to their opponents style of play within games.
“It all has to do with the front end, the defensive line getting back there, getting pressure on the quarterback,” defensive back Todd Kelly Jr. said heading into the Georgia game. “Because without them, the quarterback can sit back there and tap the football all day until his receivers are open. All credit to the defensive line.”
Kelly Jr. already has 22 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble.
Depth up front has allowed Bob Shoop to scheme, rotate, adjust and find favorable matches based on down and distance.
Derek Barnett has recorded 18 tackles, including six for a loss. The junior defensive end has added two sacks. He took over parts of the second half against Florida.
“I think the rotation helped all of us up front,” Barnett said after four games. “We were just feeding off of each other and the guys inside were getting great push.
“(Corey) Vereen was playing good and we had a good rotation going on so we stayed fresh. It helps all of us play at eye-level. Honestly, you’re not going to be fresh in any game you play, but I was more fresh (against Florida) than in past case scenarios.”
The slow starts to games have been an emphasis leading many to wonder if the Vols can be this dominant for two quarters, why can’t they do it for four?
“I feel like we haven’t really started the way we wanted to in any of our games,” Kelly said. “Going into this game we want to play 60 minutes of football, that’s what the game is all about.
“Not just playing one half, the second half, first half, but playing a full game. We know we haven’t played our best football yet. That’s something we are really looking forward to; seeing what it’s like when we do play 60 minutes of Tennessee football. So we are really focused this week on coming out, starting fast and playing our style of play.”
Playing a full 60 minutes will be key and could help the Tennessee defense tee off on Georgia freshman quarterback Jacob Eason.
Barnett knows it, too. He also realizes Eason’s talents and the readiness that Tennessee’s defense needs to bring early in Athens.
“I don’t think he looks like a freshman quarterback. He has a good arm and he’s confident. He has taken some big hits and he’s gotten right back up. They have a good offensive line and they’ve got two or three good running backs. So, it’s going to be a good ballgame for us and I’m excited to see how we play them.”