The Vols worked through a closed situational scrimmage that featured approximately 80-90 plays. Head coach Butch Jones admitted that the team still had a ways to go, but Saturday was a great measuring stick as evaluations continue, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
“The great thing was our coaches were off the field, so they had to think for themselves and they had to play football,” said Jones as the Vols wrapped up the second of two practices on the day. “We’ll know a little bit more in the next few days who is game ready. The big thing for us is our overall effort. Effort can make you right when you’re wrong. Our younger players are really struggling with that.”
Jones highlighted a bend-but-don’t-break drive where the defense took its lumps, but stood strong when it mattered most. The second-team offense, led by quarterback Nathan Peterman, started on its own 1-yard line, but managed to march to the opposite 2-yard line after an extended drive.
But the defense made a play, forcing a fumble near the end zone and ending the drive.
“It’s a great illustration for the defense – just give me a place to stand, just keep playing, keep scratching, keep clawing,” Jones said.
“We had a big hit by Lemond Johnson [to force that fumble], we’ve been working on his physicality, he’s been showing great improvements over the years,” said Brian Randolph. “Lately, he’s been getting the big hits and knocking the ball out. We had a couple turnovers tonight and we’re proud of that.”
Randolph accounted for the other turnover himself. Justin Coleman deflected a pass that landed right in the redshirt junior’s hands for an early interception that helped set the tone for the defense.
“I see [improvement] in our man-to-man coverage, especially when it’s crunch time,” Randolph said. “We lock them up pretty good, you don’t see too many blown routes, we’re communicating the calls, so everybody’s getting locked up on the defensive [side of the ball].
“I feel like everybody was running to the ball, everybody had great effort, even the young guys had great effort.”
Saturday’s warm evening, combined with long drives, gave the defense a test in endurance. The live setting meant substituting was a challenge, leaving players on the field for extended stretches.
“We still have to work our football conditioning, especially our defensive front and with the up-tempo offenses, it’s a great challenge because of the substitution game,” Jones said “Our defensive line has to be ready to play eight, nine, ten, 12 plays in a row without a break. The days of substituting freely on the defensive line are over with.”
More praise for Barnett: Jones had more praise for freshman defensive end Derek Barnett.
“Derek Barnett is an individual that continues to show up,” he said. “He’s worked his way into a role on this football team. Now I’ll go back and see exactly where he’s at because he had to play some extended drives. Of all the young individuals on the defensive front, Derek Barnett is the one who is really standing out.”
Randolph added that the freshman was all over the field, giving great effort in the pass rush and then getting downfield to help make tackles.
“He had a good effort for us, even making plays in the secondary,” Randolph said of Barnett.
Other defensive notes:
• Randolph said the coaches limited linebacker A.J Johnson’s work, noting that they wanted to get the backup middle linebackers some work. “We know A.J. – we know what he has to offer, so we try to get his backups some reps and work,” Randolph said. “There’s no sense in dinging up A.J.”
• Jones said safeties Todd Kelly Jr. and Cortez McDowell both sat out with injuries.