Vols’ secondary settles down, settles in
By Grant Ramey | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
KNOXVILLE — There was a bit of a déjà vu feeling in the first half last week against North Carolina State.
Tennessee’s defensive backs weren’t on the same page and N.C. State receivers were running open for one big gain after another — an all-too-familiar and all-too-ugly reminder of a secondary that was beat for big plays on more than a few occasions last fall.
But the back end of the Vols’ defense settled down and settled in. The end result was nothing like 2011.
“They’re playing with a lot more confidence in the back end,” UT coach Derek Dooley said of his defensive backs. “I was really pleased with how they played in the back end. We got torched a lot last year back there. We’re putting our hands on guys (this year), made some good picks.”
By the end of the night four different Vols had intercepted highly-touted N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon. Tennessee had just nine interceptions in 12 games last season.
So what was the problem early? Communication, or a lack there of, in UT’s defensive backfield on the big stage of a much anticipated season-opener, leaving receivers open over the middle of the field.
“I’ll be honest, that was one thing when we came out early on, we got a little bit rattled,” safeties coach Josh Conklin said. “The communication wasn’t there.
“But when we came back, we did do a nice job. We didn’t get rattled beyond one mistake and compound that into another and another.”
Instead of compounding mistakes, Tennessee compounded interceptions.
Prentiss Waggner started the pick party, intercepting Glennon late in the first quarter with the Vols trailing 7-6.
The offense needed just one play — a 72-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Bray to Zach Rogers — to take a 13-6 lead. Tennessee’s aggressive defense helped turn five turnovers into 12 points on the night.
“We just settled in,” safety Byron Moore said, “then coach Sal (Sunseri) started calling some of the more basic plays for us so we could play faster, then putting linebackers on those tight ends running down the middle of the field. I thought we played better after that.”
Moore accounted for the Vols’ second interception, picking off Glennon in the third quarter, just three plays after Tennessee’s offense went 87 yards in 14 plays while eating up over six minutes.
Eric Gordon and Marsalis Teague each had a fourth quarter interception to help the Vols preserve a 14-point lead.
“I think most of the time if we got the call we did pretty good,” safety Brian Randolph, one of the few UT defensive backs that didn’t pick off Glennon, said. “But we’ve got to get better at relaying the calls around the field and just getting the same page with everybody.”
Tennessee didn’t just simplify the defense play calls for the secondary last Friday, it went to more simplified hand signals, too.
“We took that, we changed it, we made the adjustment we had to make and those guys came back and responded well,” Conklin said. “I think the way we just demand that they approach everything, that showed up on (Friday) for sure.”
Pressure from Tennessee’s front seven helped, too. Curt Maggitt forced Glennon into a fumble that rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety and a 15-7 first-quarter lead.
“You’ve got to do things that try to create plays in a game,” Dooley said. “And our guys did a good job with that.”
“It’s kind of a relief,” Gordon said. “We work so hard and to just come out and perform like that week one, it says a lot.
“We’re just trying to make a statement.”