Sudden change

Imagine you're a weary defensive player, trotting off the field after a taxing series of plays. Mere seconds after you plop down on the bench to catch your breath, however, a turnover forces you to hustle right back onto the field.

Life doesn't get much worse than that for a defender, yet these so-called "sudden-change" situations seem to bring out the best in Tennessee's defense.

Consider:

Game 1: Montana punts at the end of a nine-play third-quarter possession, then drops Tennessee tailback Tauren Poole for a safety on the very next play. Two plays after the Grizzlies get the ball back, however, Art Evans returns an interception 37 yards for a Vol touchdown.

Game 3: Florida blocks a second-quarter Tennessee punt and takes over at the Vol 13-yard line. Tennessee's defense allows just one net yard, however, forcing Florida to settle for a 30-yard field goal.

Game 4: After scoring a first-quarter touchdown to pull within 14-7, Buffalo recovers the ensuing squib kick at Tennessee's 21-yard line. Three plays lose six yards, however, then the Bulls miss a 44-yard field goal.

Game 4: Buffalo kicks a field goal at the end of a nine-play fourth-quarter drive, then recovers a fumble on the ensuing kickoff at Tennessee's 23-yard line. The Vol defense stops the Bulls cold, however, and Tennessee takes over on downs at its 17-yard line.

Many defenders tend to respond poorly when a sudden change forces them to rush back onto the field mere seconds after coming to the sidelines. But Tennessee defenders, for some reason, seem to rise to the occasion.

''Mostly, I think it's just the mentality of the defensive player," Vol defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "You want to go out there, thinking, 'OK, our backs are against the wall. Let's do something.'"

Players who thrive when their backs are against the wall are generally easy to recognize.

"Yeah, guys that want to fight," the coordinator said. "That's defense. It's all about us or them. They (offense) have got the advantage in a sudden-change.... You've got to get excited about it. It's a challenge to go back out there in a sudden-change situation, and that should be exciting for you. They (opponent) have got the ball. OK, what are we going to do about it?"

Sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith also believes a combative nature helps in sudden-change situations.

"The big thing is the willingness to go out there and fight," he said. "Everyone makes mistakes but whenever our offense makes one we want to make sure no points are lost because of it. That's just us having our offense's back."

Senior linebacker Austin Johnson says Vol defenders feel motivated, rather than deflated, when they're forced to hustle back onto the field in a sudden-change situation.

"When we see a turnover, we don't think of it as 'Oh, we've got to go back out.' I think this defense sees it as another opportunity to get a big stop," he said. "We want to be out there stopping the offense. Mentally, this defense is extremely competitive."

Ultimately, Vol defenders feel a heightened sense of urgency when a Tennessee turnover puts them in a difficult situation.

"I think adrenalin is the biggest thing — guys getting other guys hyped up, screaming at each other," Johnson said. "That competitive atmosphere really brings out a lot in each one of the defensive players."

Smith agreed, noting: "It's a huge sense of urgency by the defense. As soon as we sit down, the coach says 'Back on the field! Back on the field!' and everyone just puts their hats on, gets really intense and ready to go. We just strap it on and we're ready to go."

Senior defensive tackle Malik Jackson says the Vols are much more focused in sudden-change situations than they were last season.

"Last year in those situations everybody was like, 'Oh, man, we just got off the field and now we've got to go out there again,'" he said. "Now everybody embraces it like 'Yes! We've got a chance to go out there and play some football, do what we love.' We have that mindset to not let teams score. Everybody wants to go out there and do their job."

Sophomore nose guard Daniel Hood believes the Vols play more instinctively and aggressively in sudden-change situations.

"When you have to do something right away, I think you do things on instinct more," he said. "You have to in those situations because you don't have all of those corrections (from last series) to go through, so you're focused in. I think it helps us in those situations ... not having to think too much and just playing. When your coach is over there drawing up plays, you're thinking, 'OK, I've got to do this, this and this.' Then you see a turnover and you kind of forget all of it, go out there and play on principles."

Obviously, a fired-up crowd can invigorate a defense when it is faced with a sudden-change situation.

"We've had a lot of those at home," Johnson noted. "Having that hype from the fans gives us a lot of momentum going into those situations."

There's a cat-and-mouse aspect to sudden-change situations, as well. Many times, assuming the defenders are a little unsettled, the offense will try to go deep on the first play following a turnover.

"Some of it is (anticipating) what kind of plays they're going to run," Wilcox said. "Are they going to take a shot? A lot of times you're going to get a shot play — play-action or a wheel route or a deep-ball type of thing."

Apparently, there are a lot of explanations for Tennessee's success in sudden-change situations this fall. Whatever the reasons, the Vols' head man is pleased with the results.

"I hope we can keep that up," Derek Dooley said. "It's a big boost when you have something bad happen. The last two games it's been great. It's even better when you get up there and put a little pressure, and they miss the field goal. Then you really come out feeling good."

Vol linebacker Austin Johnson (40) and safety Prentiss Waggner team up for a tackle against Montana. (Photo by Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)


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