KNOXVILLE — Statistics suggest that the University of Tennessee football team has a classic “risk/reward” defense.
The Volunteers are 68th out of 120 major NCAA Division I programs in scoring defense. They are ranked 74th in total defense. They are 70th in rushing defense and 77th in passing defense.
Yet they are 17th nationally with 14 interceptions and 24th nationally with 21 turnovers gained.
On that surface, that screams “risk/reward.”
But not so fast, according to defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
“We haven’t blitzed as much [recently],” Wilcox said. “We’ve probably blitzed as little as we have all year in the last few games.”
At the very least, that combination of defensive statistics is exceptionally rare for a unit that doesn’t blitz a tremendous amount.
“Turnovers are always a product of, you know, either pressuring the quarterback on interceptions, doing a good job of stripping the ball out and getting fumbles,” Wilcox said. “It’s really guys that play fast, and you play fast when you know what you’re doing, and you execute your technique at a high level.
“That’s when you create turnovers.”
Whatever the Vols are doing, it’s working.
In last Saturday’s 52-14 blowout of Ole Miss, for just the second time all season — and the first time against an FCS opponent — UT shut out an opponent in the second half.
“That was nice,” senior defensive end Chris Walker said. “That was really nice.”
UT has forced 10 turnovers and lost only one in the past two games, which bumped the Vols up to 30th nationally in turnover margin. They now force a half-turnover a game more than they lose in an average game.
“I think it’s been huge,” Wilcox said. “It’s a lot of guys playing more confident. It’s a lot of guys executing better. We’re still not anywhere where we need to be, but that’s something we’re always working towards.
“You know, you’re never going to be satisfied, but we’re definitely making fewer mistakes, and that’s good to see.”
Especially when they’re not blitzing that frequently.
“Hopefully you can give the quarterback a couple of different looks, so that’s always important,” Wilcox said. “And, you know, guys [are] making a play on the ball and being comfortable playing their technique and pulling the trigger when they see the ball thrown, and that’s something that’s always going to play a part in getting turnovers.
“Sometimes it’s how you execute your technique, and sometimes the quarterback may make a bad decision. You’ve got to make them pay for it. You’ve got to catch it.”
This and that
Sophomore safety Janzen Jackson (ankle), redshirt freshman cornerback Eric Gordon (concussion) and sophomore Zach Rogers (concussion) all practiced in no-contact jerseys Thursday. Status updates weren’t available, though, because head coach Derek Dooley doesn’t meet with the media on Thursdays. Wednesday, he said Jackson and Rogers were probable for Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt but Gordon remained questionable.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney praised senior tight end Luke Stocker, who earlier in the week was named one of eight semifinalists for the Mackey Award, given annually to college football’s top tight end. “Great leadership, wonderful kid and great leadership. He’s battling his [tail] off to finish his senior year the right way for this university, and I couldn’t be more proud to be associated with him,” Chaney said.
Wilcox said the biggest difference in coaching games from the press box — not the sideline, where he started this season — was “no sunburn.” Wilcox, who moved himself up to the press box in trying to improve UT’s defensive play, said he preferred coaching from the sideline but has had success at different times in his career coaching from either location. “It’s more of a management [issue] when you’re up top,” he said.
Dooley said he started junior Daryl Vereen over senior LaMarcus Thompson against Ole Miss because of a “little internal deal” that he didn’t specify.
“It didn’t last very long,” Dooley said. “The first play of the game, [Vereen] lost a wheel route right down the sideline, so [Thompson] went back in pretty quick. Good coaching.”
Chaney said sophomore David Oku, whose role has essentially evaporated for most of this season, continues to battle with true freshman Rajion Neal for the second-team tailback spot.
“Those two kids, it seems like they’re battling with some consistency playing solid week in and week out, and it seems every week one of them moves in front of the other one,” Chaney said, “so it’s kind of fun to watch that competitive battle going. We are very happy with both those kids, and they are going to be very good football players as they compete their way to earn their spots.”