Tennessee puts up so many points so quickly that the defense is usually glossed over, overlooked until someone wonders how the Volunteers can play so many minutes per game.
It turns out the second-ranked Vols can play defense, too, despite being on the field more than all but five other FBS teams.
As Tennessee prepares to visit defending national champion Georgia (8-0, 5-0 SEC), the Volunteers are coming off perhaps their best defensive performance of the season. They stifled Will Lewis, a projected first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, allowing 98 passing yards while punting him three times.
Coach Josh Heupel said Monday that good teams get better as the season goes on, and he sees the defense continuing to improve under coordinator Tim Banks and secondary coach Willie Martinez, with last week’s 44-6 rout of Kentucky the latest example.
Being healthy also helps.
“We were healthier last week than we were last week,” Heupel said. “I feel like this week is going to be the healthiest I’ve ever been.”
The Vols (8-0, 4-0) are tied for first in the Southeastern Conference with a plus-8 margin in turnovers and have a league-best 16 losses.
They also allow just 92.9 yards per game, which is the second-fewest in the SEC and ninth among Football Bowl Subdivision teams. They held LSU to 55 yards, Alabama to 114 and Kentucky to just 107.
To make matters worse, the Wildcats managed just 3.25 yards per game and 205 yards against Tennessee, the fewest the Vols have allowed since Kentucky had 193 against them on Nov. 29, 2008. The six points allowed were the fewest by an SEC opponent against the Vols. since Mississippi State was routed 34-3 on October 18, 2008.
Tennessee’s defensive line is anchored by senior Byron Young, who has five sacks, and Georgia coach Kirby Smart is very familiar with Rodney Garner, who currently coaches Tennessee’s defensive line.
Garner coached Georgia’s defensive line in his first year and served as recruiting coordinator when Smart was finishing his playing career with the Bulldogs. Garner was still there when Smart was a graduate student. When Smart coached the running backs in 2005, Garner was an assistant head coach at Georgia.
Smart said Garner brings toughness and an old-school approach to hitting people and playing physical. Garner also coaches hard, something that hasn’t changed in all his years of coaching.
“They’re not going to run from contact,” Smart said of the Vols. “They are not going to shy away from contact. They are not going to turn down the challenge. And it’s not about what they’re going to do this week, it’s about how he’s shaped them and how he’s coached them.”
The secondary was the biggest problem for Tennessee, where they were so beat up that William Wright played late in a downed Alabama. That unit was bolstered last week by the return of four-year starter Jalen McCollough after he missed two games following an aggravated assault arrest.
Chloe Akers’ attorney declined to comment to The Associated Press. A motion filed last week in McCollough’s case alleges that security was defending against the punches of a man who refused to leave after entering an apartment in the wrong building. The preliminary hearing is scheduled for November 10.
Junior defensive lineman Amari Thomas says Tennessee’s defense is just working every day to try to improve.
“Everything works hand in hand that we all just continue to do our part of the deal and do what we have to do to get better,” Thomas said.
AP sports writer Charles Odum contributed to this report.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker
AP College Football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap-top25. Subscribe to the AP Football Newsletter: https://tinyurl.com/mrxhe6f2
Suggest a correction