Tennessee Vols' defense steps up energy in scrimmage

Tennessee Vols' defense steps up energy in scrimmage

April 6th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

During Thursday's practice defensive tackle Owen Williams (left) and center Mack Crowder (right) are seen in a drill. Photo by Patrick Brown.

KNOXVILLE - Corey Vereen probably is getting his practice jersey back.

The Tennessee defensive end has worn a white jersey with the right number and wrong name on it for the past week after the Volunteers' offense earned the right to wear the orange with its performance in last week's scrimmage.

Vereen and his defensive mates, particularly his fellow defensive linemen, helped ensure the Vols' defense will be back in orange for the final week of spring practice.

"We were kind of dragging last practice," the sophomore said following Saturday's session at Neyland Stadium. "and we told everybody, 'Not again. We've got to come out this practice strong, with energy.' We came out and we did it. We kept drives from going, we got off the field and did a lot of good things today.

"We had a lot of movement and a lot of blitzes in. On top of that, it was just a mindset we had. We told everybody we're trying to attack and trying to make plays."

Tennessee's third spring scrimmage -- the final one before the Orange and White Game in six days -- doubled as an open practice, with coach Butch Jones mixing in 11-on-11 live scrimmaging with special-teams work and competitive individual periods that featured a lot of one-on-one work between the offense and defense.

The Vols hosted "appreciation days" for university faculty and students, and Saturday concluded a three-day coaching clinic that hosted nearly 500 high school coaches from across the region. Former Tennessee quarterback Sterling Henton deejayed the event, as he does for every home game.

At the end of the practice, Jones had the couple hundred students in the stands surround Tennessee's kickers as they kicked and punted, and the second-year coach gathered the students around the team and had four students dance before eventually busting a couple of his own moves.

Defensive end Jordan Williams said it was "like a carnival" Saturday.

"It's fun," defensive end Curt Maggitt said. "At the end of the day, football is meant to be fun. Coach Jones, he brings that spark. You don't see a lot of coaches doing that kind of stuff. He's got that swag."

From the start of the scrimmage, it was Tennessee's defense, which struggled last week, that had the most energy.

In the first four series of scrimmaging, the defense allowed just a short field goal. Maggitt and defensive end LaTroy Lewis both made nice plays on the edge, freshmen Dimarya Mixon and Jakob Johnson had sacks with the second-team group and Jalen Reeves-Maybin intercepted Riley Ferguson.

"The past few practices weren't good as a defense," Maggitt said. "We started to feel fatigue and whatnot, and yesterday we decided as a defense and as a unit we were going to pick it up and recommit ourselves. Today we came out with effort, played together and that showed.

"We had a lot better of a day than any other scrimmage and played with energy throughout the day, and it showed with production."

In five red-zone series, Tennessee's defense allowed just two touchdowns -- a Justin Worley third-down pass to Von Pearson on what appeared to be a bust in coverage and Devrin Young's score on a jet sweep -- and one short field goal.

Vereen and defensive tackle Danny O'Brien combined for one sack, and cornerback Riyahd Jones broke up a potential touchdown after having good coverage to force a fourth-down incompletion.

"This is the energy we've been looking for all spring, and we found it," Williams said.

Midway through the scrimmage, center Mack Crowder lit into his offensive-line mates on the sideline after the defensive line continued to live in the backfield.

"We needed that. That was great to see," Coach Jones said of his defensive line. "I knew they were focused because they came up to me in the meetings today and said, 'Coach, you're going to see a different energy today.' Now they have to understand it's that consistency. I thought it was great that they came and they established the line of scrimmage today.

"It's a great teach lesson for the offensive line, too, is you're only as good as your last rep. You're only as good as your last performance. That's why we have a snap-and-clear mentality. Play the play, clear it from your mind and play the next snap."

After being limited in the first two scrimmages, rising senior All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson was in for every first-team repetition Saturday. He combined with Vereen for another sack and broke up a pass. Jones called Johnson a "presence" and "made himself felt out there."

"You're with a professional when you're out there," Vereen said. "He's been here before. He's relaxed, he's cool, he's calm. The calls are quicker. It's great having him there."

Tennessee's offense rebounded with a couple of touchdowns on drives that began at the defense's 43-yard line and scored on all five goal-to-go scenarios. But with the aid of some dropped passes, the defense held the offense scoreless on eight "last play of the game" simulations to end the scrimmage.

"Today was a big day for us," Vereen said. "We had to have today to keep going into the next week and into the Orange and White Game and into the season. We had to have today.

"It was a good momentum changer. Everybody had a lot of energy, a little juice, a little pep in their step. Today was very key in what we're trying to do here."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com