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Butch Jones

KNOXVILLE -- Four weeks into the football season, Tennessee tops the Southeastern Conference in third-down defense.

The Volunteers know they need to move up the league charts in another category.

In its first three games of the season, Tennessee forced six turnovers, but a defense that's played better than expected given its question marks up front is responsible for just three of those, and that's not enough havoc for coach Butch Jones heading into Saturday's game at 12th-ranked Georgia.

"We need to start generating more hits on the quarterback, more of a pass rush and more ball disruptions," Jones said Monday. "That's the thing [where] I want to see improvement defensively. ... There's a lot of things that we need to do to take the next step defensively."

The Vols are sixth in the SEC in total defense allowing 343 yards per game, roughly 75 less than in 2013, against offenses that currently rank 29th (Oklahoma), 89th (Arkansas State) and 97th (Utah State) in the nation in yards per game.

Yet aside from interceptions by cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker A.J. Johnson against Utah State and LaDarrell McNeil's pickoff just before halftime against Oklahoma, Tennessee's only turnovers came on special teams, and two were a result of poor punts from Matt Darr. The Vols are struggling to create takeaways and have just five sacks this season.

"That's the main thing, getting turnovers," Johnson said. "One thing Coach has been harping over this week is we need more ball disruptions. We're going to work that all this week in practice so we can carry it over to the game this week."

Behind a ground game that's second in the SEC, Georgia is putting up points and taking care of the football. Bulldogs quarterback Hutson Mason has yet to throw an interception in 59 passes, and Georgia's only turnover came in the first quarter of its opener against Clemson, when receiver Michael Bennett fumbled.

"That's our job," Sutton said. "We've just got to get the ball back to our offense any way that's possible. We're also trying to put points up on the board as well, and that takes pressure off the offense when we're getting the ball back to them. They're able to sustain drives and keep the ball moving.

"The more opportunities they have with the ball in their hands, it's better for the team."

Though he and his staff thought last season the Vols tried forcing turnovers so much that their tackling suffered, Jones believes creating turnovers must be a team's DNA developed through practice habits, and swarming to the ball and stripping ball carriers are techniques his defense practices daily.

"I'm not quite seeing the fruits of our labor," he said. "I'm not seeing the investment in time really manufacture itself on game day, and that's what we need to see. We need to see the inordinate amount of time that we talk about [and] practice ball disruptions, we have to do a much better job of that."

Line help wanted

The Vols have managed to make it through three games with a primary rotation of five or six defensive linemen, but Jones knows that won't fly in SEC play.

Defensive ends Jaylen Miller and LaTroy Lewis appear to have moved ahead of freshman Dewayne Hendrix, who didn't play at Oklahoma, and freshman Dimarya Mixon and the oft-injured Trevarris Saulsberry are next in line at defensive tackle.

"They continue to be work in progress, and we're going to need them as we venture into SEC play now," Jones said. "The bye week was critical to get them valuable reps, get them live reps, but we're going to need them to step up because you can't play that amount of [defensive] linemen in the SEC. We're going to need depth, and we're going to need to play more people.

"They're working exceptionally hard to put themselves in that position, but we're going demand and expect more of them because we need those reps."

Capable catchers

Receiver Von Pearson (ankle) already has been ruled out for Saturday's trip to Athens, and Jones said the status of fellow wideout Josh Smith (ankle) will be "ongoing" this week, though the sophomore was seen on crutches in a walking boot as late as Friday of last week.

Those absences mean Tennessee will need Marquez North and Pig Howard to increase their production, while others, particularly freshman Josh Malone, will have to step into larger roles.

"Nothing really changes," North said. "We just prepare the same every week. People will get more reps, and we've all got to step up as a group and play complementary football.

"Everyone's going to get more reps and more plays, everyone that's capable, because we play a lot of guys."

Jones singled out Malone, a former five-star recruit, as one player whose opportunities "very rightfully" will increase.

"It's Zach Azzanni," he said, praising Tennessee's receivers coach. "I continue to say it, and I mean it. I'm a wide receivers coach by nature. He has a knack for developing receivers, and Josh holds on every word that he says.

"He's played consistently," Jones added. "Every time he's gone in there, he's caught the football, he's advanced the football, he's blocked -- he's done everything that we've asked of him. He's been a quiet consistent performance for us."

Tight ends Ethan Wolf (knee) and Daniel Helm (ankle) are good to go for Saturday.

Tennessee tidbits

Tennessee's home game against Florida on Oct. 4 will kick off at noon and be televised by the SEC Network. It will be the Vols' third game on the new channel this season. The Gators have an open date before visiting Knoxville and a try for a 10th straight win in the series. ... Jones said he's "very familiar" with Georgia's Mason after recruiting him at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. ... Tennessee is playing ranked opponents in consecutive road games for the third consecutive season (Georgia and Mississippi State in 2012, Alabama and Missouri in 2013 and Oklahoma and Georgia this season).

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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