KNOXVILLE — Moments after Tennessee's 20-10 triumph over Mississippi State, senior safety Nigel Warrior leaped into the stands at Neyland Stadium and celebrated with the student section.
"I had to," Warrior said after the game. "That felt good. I feel the presence, and they help us out a lot. I just had to show my love back to the fans. The student section is loud; everyone is loud. Me jumping into the crowd was just my appreciation."
It wasn't that long ago that he may not have been welcomed into that crowd. But with his recent play, all of that has changed.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Warrior is in a stretch of what may be the best football he's played for the Volunteers, who face top-ranked Alabama (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) Saturday at 9 p.m. EDT at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
Warrior entered this year with one career interception. He has two in 2019. He broke up a total of five passes in his first three seasons but has tied that this year, including a big one late in the Mississippi State game.
He followed up a 10-tackle, two-breakup performance against Georgia on Oct. 5 with four tackles, an interception and two pass breakups against the other Bulldogs.
"We was playing a double coverage. I'm actually surprised he threw it," Warrior said of the interception of MSU's Garrett Shrader. "I'm actually scoochin' — I'm reading the No. 2 receiver, and as he runs up he does a corner. I'm trying to press into him. Shawn Shamburger, he was underneath it, and while he threw it, I'm pushing into him and I look back and I see a brown spot in the air. And I thought, 'The only brown spot I know is the ball.' So I'm looking up, and I'm like, excited. I had to turn my body around, and the rest is practice.
"That was just a practice rep right there."
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said Monday that in Warrior he's seen a guy that's "really developed over the last 22 months."
"The habits of what he does on the field, off the field, in the locker room, being a leader, in the classroom, Nigel has really matured," Pruitt said. "He's a good leader on our football team. He's worked extremely hard to improve his game, and I see some confidence there that probably wasn't there when he first got here. I think he's playing his best football right now."
Warrior, the son of former Vol Dale Carter, had his struggles early in the season. He took a bad angle on a late pass completion in the Brigham Young game that led to a missed tackle and the game-tying field goal in an eventual 29-26 double-overtime loss. He appeared to get lost on the first drive of the Florida game, with a long pass play leading to a touchdown in the Gators' 34-3 rout.
But Warrior and the Vols secondary as a group have shown improvement.
"It starts by staying low in my stance," Warrior said Saturday. "That's, like, the main thing, staying low and just running around, man, and don't be complacent. If you run to the ball and the next man miss, they may not see you, so you can make the play. But everything starts with practice, just running around and don't care about what may happen.
"My dad told me, 'You go out there and play soft, you end up getting hurt.' That's something that resonated with me."
Against the Bulldogs, the Tennessee defense allowed only 267 yards of total offense, a season low for Mississippi State. So were the 146 yards passing, and the 121 yards rushing was the second-fewest by the Bulldogs this season.
"Practice. It was practice," Warrior said. "Throughout practices, starting from last week, we practiced with more intensity, more communication, and it was just a different vibe out there. Guys actually wanted to play football, and Coach (Tracy) Rocker said, 'When we were younger, we all had that little boy that just wanted to play football no matter what.' We came out to play like those little boys that were in the front yard, back yard, actually wanting to go ball out and touch the ball."
Contact Gene Henley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.