True, Florida’s offense looked inept for much of the game and helped Tennessee along the way with a few unforced errors. But a group that had plenty of questions coming into the season is clearly outperforming expectations through five games.
The Vols, which finished 11th in the SEC in total defense in 2013, are a respectable sixth in the conference at this point, ahead of programs such as Florida and South Carolina, which have been well ahead of the Vols in recent seasons.
“They are overachieving right now,” Butch Jones said of the defense. “They’re playing at a very high level with great confidence. They are making great effort. They’re swarming to the football. I think we’re benefiting from some individuals really elevating their play.
“Jalen Reeves-Maybin (JRM) is one of those individuals who just continues to get better and better, week in and week out. He’s very active to the football.”
JRM is up to third in the SEC in total tackles with 44 on the season (A.J. Johnson is first with 59) and had an interception and return against Florida on Saturday that ultimately was squandered by a Tennessee interception.
The true sophomore began his career as a safety before moving to outside linebacker last season to learn the position. He was an ace special teams player last year before growing into a starting role on defense in 2014. He’s one of several players who has grown into their position this season on the defense.
Jones said it’s a unit that’s overachieving. Reeves-Maybin doesn’t see it that way. He just sees guys doing their job and playing their game.
“Us as a defense, we wouldn’t say that [we’re overachieving],” JRM said. “I mean, we put work in with each other all summer, all year. We trust everybody. We know everybody’s got each other’s back. We count on everybody, so we’re just playing our game and that’s what we try to do every Saturday. Just play our game.”
With the issues that manifested on offense against Florida, there could be some level of pressure on the defense to actually score as well. It had two decent opportunities against the Gatos – both times taking the ball into scoring range for the offense. Jones wants them to stay focused on their job, however, and trust that the offense will work itself out.
“No, again it just comes down to complementary football,” he said. “Also, it’s field position. Scoring points is relative to your field position too and in the first half, we were behind the field position game all half. So, it’s our kickoff return, it’s our punt return, it’s our punt game and that’s what I mean by complementary football. Each side of the ball, each special team – helping out that unit. Great teams play complementary football.
“It is a field position game and that’s why it’s disturbing when we don’t score seven points in the red zone but we’ll continue to stress that in practice but again, it’s complementary football.”
The defense is clearly playing its role in that complementary style that Jones is looking for.