Pickin' up the pace

Tennessee's school record for single-season interceptions is 36, set in 1970. The 2008 Vols are on pace to register 42.

"That's absolutely the last thing that's on my mind," UT secondary coach Larry Slade after watching his DBs notch three interceptions in Saturday's 35-3 defeat of UAB. Coupled with the four Tennessee registered in Game 1 at UCLA, the Vols now have seven picks through two games.

Fearful that talking about gaudy interception totals might prove to be a jinx, Slade clearly would prefer not to.

"You watch the UCLA game and you get four picks early, and you start thinking about that," he said. "It's been my history that, when you start thinking about that stuff, it doesn't happen. Right now we're going to practice, keep working hard and take one play at a time."

Slade took a lot of heat in 2007 because injuries and suspensions forced him to field a young, patchwork secondary that was torched on a regular basis last September and October. Having survived that ordeal, however, those DBs now qualify as grizzled veterans. That's why Tennessee's eye-popping interception total doesn't surprise Slade.

"To be honest, no," he said. "Our guys expect to make plays. It's been a continuation from the spring to the fall to now. We've just got to do a better job of making plays and getting off the field. But we made a couple of plays (vs. UAB) when it mattered."

Sophomore safety Eric Berry, who picked off one pass in each of the first two games, isn't surprised by to see UT with seven interceptions this early, either.

"Not really," he said. "Throughout spring and fall camp we were working on breaking on the ball and being where we need to be."

Berry called interceptions "a big part of our game," adding: "We feel we can get the ball back to Jonathan (Crompton) and those (offensive) guys, so they can do what they need to do. We discussed it in the spring and summertime, and it's paying off now."

Berry saved a touchdown Saturday, stepping in front of UAB's Frantrell Forrest to intercept a pass at the Vol goal line. The pick was huge, since it enabled the Vols to maintain a tenuous 14-0 lead.

"I just saw the quarterback rolling the opposite way, and I was rolling with him," Berry recalled. "I was looking for work, and No. 7 (Forrest) tried to sneak back into my side. I just read it and picked it off."

In spite of the imposing interception total, Tennessee's defensive backs have gotten some criticism this fall. They surrendered 138 passing yards in the fourth quarter of the Game 1 loss at UCLA. They redeemed themselves with a superior performance in Game 2, however.

"They have been very resilient," Slade noted. "They work well together. We've got an opportunity to play a lot of guys."

That's partly because this year's DB ranks feature one guy who missed all of 2007 on suspension (Demetrice Morley), one guy who missed 12 games with an ACL tear (Antonio Gaines) and another who missed 7 games with an ACL tear (Marsalous Johnson). Now that they've rejoined the cast, the Vols have a surplus of pass defenders vying for playing time.

"It really could be one of those selfish things," Slade said. "You've got Marsalous and Gaines wanting to get reps (behind the starters). They all want to play but the thing I admire about them is that they've all been great team players."

And pretty good interceptors, as well.


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