UT focusing on creating turnovers

Published 2:04 pm Thursday, September 20, 2018

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt knows what the statistics say about his defense. He just doesn’t agree with them.

The stats suggest Tennessee’s defense has improved quite a bit the last couple of weeks and heads into Southeastern Conference competition with momentum.

Pruitt is focused on a different stat: Zero, the number of takeaways the Volunteers produced last week in their first shutout of a Football Bowl Subdivision team since 2015.

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“It’s going to be hard to win in the SEC moving forward (if we’re) not creating any turnovers,” Pruitt said after the 24-0 victory over UTEP . “We’re going to have to be a team that creates a bunch of turnovers.”

Pruitt has spent the initial stages of his Tennessee tenure making sure his players understand that.

Alabama specialized in forcing turnovers during Pruitt’s two-year stint as the Crimson Tide’s defensive coordinator . Pruitt wants his Tennessee defenses to adopt a similar approach.

“It’s got to be who we are,” Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. said. “We’ve got to try to force turnovers every single day in practice so it’s in our DNA, (that) we go out there and there’s just a mentality to attack the ball.”

Tennessee need only look at game film of its upcoming opponent to see an example of that. Florida, which visits Tennessee on Saturday, has eight takeaways this season to match Arkansas for the SEC lead .

Although the Vols had three takeaways and scored on Kirkland’s 33-yard interception return in a 59-3 blowout of Football Championship Subdivision program East Tennessee State , they have forced a total of one turnover in their two games with FBS opponents. Tennessee had just 15 takeaways last year to rank 12th out of 14 SEC teams.

Pruitt’s defense is measuring up just fine in other respects.

Tennessee hasn’t given up a touchdown in back-to-back games, the first time that’s happened since 2003. UTEP’s offense never advanced beyond Tennessee’s 33-yard line last week.

But the Vols haven’t produced enough of the big plays that traditionally set Pruitt’s defenses apart.

During Pruitt’s five seasons as a defensive coordinator at Florida State, Alabama and Georgia, his teams forced an average of 27.8 turnovers per year. None of his defenses had fewer than 22 takeaways in a single season.

He was defensive coordinator at Florida State in 2013 when the eventual national champion Seminoles had 35 takeaways to tie for second place nationally. Alabama forced 29 turnovers in 2016 to help the Crimson Tide score 15 non-offensive touchdowns, the highest single-season total by any FBS team in the last 20 years.

Pruitt says that building a ball-hawking defense starts with recruiting.

“You want to recruit defensive players that played on offense (in high school),” Pruitt said. “Those guys are used to having the ball in their hand. How many times Saturday did the ball hit our hands in the secondary? I thought we should have had four interceptions. We didn’t.

“It’s also there’s a knack of guys stripping the ball. If they do it in high school, they’re probably going to do it… on Saturdays. If they do it on Saturdays, they’re probably going to do it on Sundays.”

That strategy should help in the long run, but it doesn’t do much good now since Pruitt didn’t recruit the majority of Tennessee’s players. Pruitt has responded by trying to make sure the players he inherited become skilled at forcing turnovers.

Defensive tackle Shy Tuttle said the Vols have a practice drill every day in which defenders try to strip the ball away from a running back, which enables defensive players to hone their takeaway skills while helping the offense focus on ball protection.

Pruitt concedes that every team works on trying to force turnovers, but Tennessee’s players say this staff has put particular emphasis on this facet of the game both in the practice field and in meeting rooms.

“Just stress it to the point where it’s always in your head,” Tuttle said.