Tennessee knows its hopes of delivering a turnaround season depend on creating more turnovers.
So far, so good.
Tennessee's preseason emphasis on takeaways paid off last week when the Volunteers picked off four passes in a 35-21 victory over North Carolina State. Curt Maggitt also sacked North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon and forced a fumble that resulted in a safety. The Vols will try to build on that momentum Saturday in their home opener against Georgia State.
“We're trying to set a statement for our defense,” junior cornerback Eric Gordon said.
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The Vols didn't make nearly enough of a statement last year.
Tennessee ranked 27th nationally in total defense and 36th in scoring defense, but the Vols delivered just 18 takeaways. Ole Miss and Florida were the only Southeastern Conference schools to produce fewer turnovers.
“Last year, we emphasized it, but we didn't get it done,” Maggitt said. “This year it's a main focus and a big focus – getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers.”
New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri arrived from Alabama intent on making sure his 3-4 defense accomplished those goals. The Vols' recent history reveals the gravity of the situation. Since 2008, Tennessee has gone 11-3 when it has made at least two interceptions and 13-24 in all other games.
“That was kind of my No. 1 thing with the hiring,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “It was disrupting an offense. Offenses are hard to stop, guys. They're just hard. If you just sit there and react to what they do all the time, it's just tough. You've got to do things that can try to create plays in a game. Our guys did a good job with that.”
The difference so far is striking.
One year ago, Tennessee didn't record its fourth interception until its ninth game of the season. This year, Tennessee and Kansas were the only FBS teams to pick off four passes in their season openers. Kansas was facing South Dakota State, a Football Championship Subdivision program. Tennessee's four interceptions came against Glennon, a projected early-round pick in next year's draft.
The flurry started when Prentiss Waggner picked off a fourth-and-3 pass from Tennessee's 35-yard line late in the first quarter. On the next play, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray found Zach Rogers for a 72-yard touchdown that put the Vols ahead for good.
Byron Moore's 18-yard interception return in the third quarter gave Tennessee the ball at the North Carolina State 45 and led to Michael Palardy's 20-yard field goal. Gordon and Marsalis Teague picked off fourth-quarter passes to thwart North Carolina State's comeback attempt.
“They're playing with a lot more confidence in the back end,” Dooley said. “I was really pleased with how they played in the back end. We got torched a lot last year back there.”
Tennessee's players said the focus on takeaways was evident all summer. The difference wasn't necessarily in the quantity of time spent on turnover drills as much as the quality of those particular sessions.
“It was a big emphasis, ever since the new defensive staff got here,” Moore said. “They said we were going to be more aggressive, attack the quarterback and try to get turnovers. I feel we established that the first game. We were proud of that.”
Sunseri still sees plenty of room for improvement.
Although Sunseri estimated the Vols hit Glennon a dozen times last week, they only sacked him once. Of course, that lone sack resulted in a safety when Maggitt knocked the ball loose. Sunseri also noted that Tennessee gave up too many long gains. North Carolina State's Quintin Payton had pass receptions of 49, 38 and 31 yards.
Sunseri believes his defense can produce more big plays.
He also wants to make sure it doesn't create big plays for its opponent.
“By no means are we satisfied with anything,” Sunseri said. “The bottom line is that every single day you go out on that field, (if) you're going to be in this program you're going to work the fundamentals and the technique to be perfect because that's going to win football games. A call doesn't win a football game. It's you going out there every single day, competing against your opponent and having a chance to whoop his tail.”