September 1, 2012
Aggressive defense sets the tone
ATLANTA --- In Tennessee's 35-21 win over N.C. State Friday night inside the Georgia Dome, the Vol defense at times was simply downright offensive.
And that's a good thing. It's by design and it's what Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley had in mind when he was saddled this past winter with assembling a new defensive staff.
"We had what four turnovers and a safety?," Dooley said. "That was huge and what we want to do.
"We hit the quarterback a lot. We forced four interceptions. I was frustrated that we were giving up some chunks, but over time if you keep hitting him, it's going to affect him."
On an opening night highlighted by first-quarter fireworks that saw two offenses score 29 points and amass 383 total yards, it was the Tennessee defense that found its footing and took control of the game with their aggressiveness.
The four interceptions mean Tennessee needs eight the rest of the season to surpass last year's total. Make no mistake, Sal Sunseri's defense made plenty of mistakes. But in the end, they did exactly what they are designed to do.
"It feels great," senior Prentiss Waggner said. "Throughout the whole training camp, coach Sal has been talking about production and getting turnovers. When you get four turnovers most likely you are going to win the game."
Waggner had one of the Vols' four picks as he baited State quarterback Mike Glennon into a throw on 3rd and 2, a play the Louisiana native credits to his defensive coordinator.
"That was all coach Sal Sunseri," Waggner said. "We had repped it all week in practice. We play a lot of man to man so they sort of gave us the route concept we expected. I made it look like man-to-man and I jumped the route."
Eric Gordon, who plays the star position (nickelback) in Sunseri's defense, had 4 tackles, a tackle for loss, and an interception. Gordon credited those in front of him for the interception.
"Our (defensive line) was all over the quarterback," Gordon said. "They had great pressure on him all day. They let us get comfortable out there so be able to make plays.
"I knew we had a great pass rush from the DL. They were awesome. I gotta give them a lot of credit. I just seen the receiver go out and I just undercut him."
Safety Byron Moore led the defense with eight tackles and had an interception of his own. After the secondary gave up several big gains in the middle of the field, Moore said it was the coaches' adjustments that put him in position to make the interception and it was those adjustments that held the NC State passing game to just 144 yards the last three quarters with 47 of that coming on the Wolfpack's final garbage-time drive.
"As the game went on, our coaches picked up on what they were trying to do so we were able to get into calls that we were more comfortable in. It was a great job by coach Sal and the defensive coaches making those adjustments and calling the right calls for us so that we could go out there and play fast."
Saturday night the Vols defense wasn't close to perfect and at times wasn't very good. They had busts. They didn't communicate well. They gave up plays and as Dooley said afterwards there are a ton of things to work on. But the defense finished the game playing four complete quarters and they made plays, which was the expectation last January when the staff was assembled.
"I think we made a real big statement," Gordon said. "There are so many opportunities in this defense to make plays. You never know where we are coming from or where we are going with our blitzes."
And that offends no one in the Big Orange Nation.
With virtually no depth at the inside linebacker position junior linebacker Dontavis Sapp got the call when senior Herman Lathers injured his shoulder and couldn't play. The 225-pound Sapp is not ideal size-wise for Sunseri's system, but he showed promise in Lathers' absence with a tackle for loss and a huge hit on Glennon.
"I was really ready," Sapp said. "We have watched a lot of film together. I have gotten a lot of reps in practice. When I got out there, it just felt second nature.
"He (Sunseri) made some simple calls that we could adjust to anything they were doing. I was just ready to play, attack and trigger. I think I have definitely opened their eyes from a trust standpoint. It's hard to just put a guy out there who hasn't really played. I just thank them for giving me the opportunity."
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