Tennessee's defense has struggled a little to start its first two games this season, but the Volunteers have settled in nicely after the first quarter in their two wins.
vs. N.C. State
• First 4 drives: 25 plays, 182 yards, 7 points
• Next 10 drives: 46 plays, 163 yards, 14 points
• First quarter: 162 yards on 26 plays (6.2 yards per play)
• Rest of game: 245 yards on 54 plays (4.5 ypp)
vs. Georgia State
• First drive: 14 plays, 65 yards, 3 points
• Next 11 drives: 58 plays, 146 yards, 3 points
• First quarter: 81 yards on 17 plays (4.7 ypp)
• Rest of game: 197 yards on 65 plays (3.0 ypp)
KNOXVILLE - The endings have been good for Tennessee's defense.
It's the beginning that the Volunteers need to fix.
In the season's first two games, Tennessee's defense has settled in and played pretty well after shaky starts, and the Vols hope to solve the early-game issues on Saturday night against visiting 18th-ranked Florida.
"The guys have just got to relax a little bit more," first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri said after Tennessee's practice Wednesday morning. "Everybody's going to come out and give up things early, and [it's] identifying stuff and relaxing and playing. Every time you play against somebody, there's always something new that they're going to do that you have to make an adjustment.
"Once you settle down, you get better as it goes."
Tennessee's defense has allowed 35 percent of its yards in the first quarter against North Carolina State and Georgia State. Take out two late-game garbage-time drives, and that percentage jumps to more than 43. The Wolfpack had four plays of 15 or more yards in the opener, and the overmatched Panthers drove to Tennessee's 3 on their opening possession.
Some communication issues against N.C. State led to some of those big plays, while Georgia State simply exploited some things the Vols were doing defensively. Tennessee also made some mistakes last week that allowed Georgia State to hit on pass plays of 25 and 24 yards and another 26-yard run. Despite allowing some yards, Tennessee has allowed just 10 first-quarter points.
Coach Derek Dooley said earlier this week said he believes the Vols will start games better defensively as they continue to become more comfortable in Sunseri's schemes.
"I'm hoping just experience and recognition," he said. "You're always going to see new stuff early in the game. They have a plan [that] they're going to attack you a certain way. Over time, 'Oh, we've seen that, we've seen that. We know what to do.'
"We need to come out and play a little better in the first quarter, but if you're going to pick a quarter not to play well, it's probably the good one."
Sunseri likes how his defense has performed well in the areas he's stressed once they've settled into games and hardly seems concerned about the slower starts.
"It's getting used to it," he said. "The first two games are usually almost like a preseason. Sometimes you've got pretty dang good opponents and sometimes you've got opponents that you should [beat]. Bottom line is ... we did what we had to do.
"We're trying to fly to the football, hold the opponents to the least amount of points we can, create turnovers, create opportunities and get off the field on third down."
N.C. State and Georgia State combined to convert just 10 of 35 third-down chances, and Sunseri said Tennessee's third-down defense was "pretty [darn] good" last week. Florida is just 8-of-28 on third downs offensively this season. It's a down worth watching Saturday night.
So is the first quarter, which the Gators have dominated as they have in a number of other parts of this series. Florida has outscored Tennessee 58-12 in the first quarter during its current seven-game win streak. That number is skewed a bit by the 31-3 advantage in Florida's two blowout wins in 2007 and 2008, but Gators have started better.
The Vols know that's what they need to do defensively starting Saturday night.
"We can't play three quarters of football, bottom line," cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said. "In this league, starting conference play, you've got to come out there and play four quarters. We challenged our guys to do that, and the main thing is this is going to be old-school football.
"The team that blocks the best and tackles the best and gets off blocks and controls the line of scrimmage is going to be the team that's going to win. They're not going to trick us, and we're not going to trick them. This is going to be grown-man football this weekend."