Oct. 18, 2013
By Brian Rice
The Tennessee defensive backs are a proud group. A season ago, that pride was tested early and often. In 2013, the unit has been the pride of the Tennessee defense.
At the midpoint of the season, the Vol defense has 15 takeaways in six games, just one away from the total in 12 games in 2012. UT has intercepted 11 passes on the season, also one away from last season's total.
The turnaround has many factors, from coaching to players, and it has all come together for a stellar effort.
"The thing we focus the most on is just play hard, have a great anticipation on what's about to happen to get yourself in the position for those plays," said assistant head coach and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez. "We've had some interceptions from pressure. We've had some interceptions from good awareness and anticipating on what's about to happen. There's been a couple where there's been bad throws."
It started in the season opener, with Daniel Hood earning a spot as an honorary defensive back after grabbing UT's first interception of the season. Later in the game, Malik Foreman became the first Volunteer freshman to record an interception in a season opener since Dwayne Goodrich picked off a pass against UNLV in 1996.
No game showed the turnaround more clearly than the win over Western Kentucky as UT forced five turnovers in six plays and 4:46 of game time to take a 31-3 lead over the Hilltoppers. Four of those turnovers came on consecutive plays, the first time in NCAA history a team has forced turnovers on four consecutive defensive plays.
Justin Coleman started it with his first interception in the Orange & White, taking a deflected pass out of the air and returning it for a touchdown with 4:24 left in the quarter. After a 3-yard run to start the next WKU possession, freshman Cameron Sutton stepped in front of a pass for his first-career interception and, 36 yards later, his first-career touchdown with 3:27 left in the opening period.
"Cam's a smart player," said Martinez." He's more advanced than a lot of the young guys from a standpoint of understanding the game and the anticipation of what's about to happen."
Brian Randolph has returned from a knee injury against Florida in 2012 that sidelined him the rest of the year to contribute three interceptions to the team total. What make his stat line unique is that all three of his picks have been in the endzone, including one to seal the Tennessee win over South Alabama.
"You have to practice red zone," said Martinez. "Again, there have been a couple of them where he has made some really great plays and other ones, there was pressure and the ball was thrown a little bit quicker. It's really a combination of all of it. You have to have pressure to generate those turnovers."
Randolph said the turnovers are a team effort.
"I think it's our energy and our effort on defense," he said. "We play with a lot of energy and effort. Everyone is trying to get to the ball and when you get to the ball good things happen."
Defensive Coordinator John Jancek said the Tennessee secondary has been impressive, including holding Georgia QB Aaron Murray to less than 200 yards through the air in their last game.
"They have just been very consistent," Jancek said of the defensive backs. "There is a learning of the ins-and-outs. The thing that is amazing is that there are so many variables on defense. From the tempo of the offense, to the formation, to the personnel. It takes a while to get acclimated to everything, but they are being really consistent and doing a good job."