KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- In 2013, the Vols are averaging 9.6 points per game off of turnovers, the best rate in the SEC and 10th best nationally.
Tennessee has forced 15 turnovers this season and nearly half of those points have come from pick-sixes by Justin Coleman, Cameron Sutton and Devaun Swafford.
The others have come in the forms of three touchdowns and two field goals by the offense.
The other seven turnovers need to be converted into points according to offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.
"We need to do a better job of taking care of the football at all times," said Bajakian. "As you look at red-zone efficiency, points generated off of turnovers, at minimum, in some of those situations we should line up and kick a field goal."
"When we turn the ball over, we walk away with zero points as opposed to three and not being able to move the ball and get the seven points is something that we stress," continued Bajakian. "We are always emphasizing getting touchdowns in the red zone but at the same points, at least have the three points in our back pocket."
The Vols main objective when they get into the red zone?
"If you go up in our team room, you will see our plan to win," said Bajakian. "One of our plans to win is score touchdowns in the red zone. Our guys have known not since we just started the season, since training camp, since spring football that that is very important. We spend a lot of time practicing in the red zone and we need to execute better."
"You have to make your possessions count," added Head Coach Butch Jones. "That is the big thing. You can't become frustrated. Everyone has to do their job and manage it. Offensively you can't go three and out, you can't put the defense back on the field. The big thing is just managing expectations and understanding what you are in store for and managing that part of the game."
The offense, like the rest of the team, has a snap-and-clear mental approach to every game and heads into Saturday's meeting with Georgia with confidence.
"We are always confident," said Bajakian. "Sure we have a snap and clear mentality. If you have a bad play, clear it and look to the next play. Always look to improve upon all of the details of the pass and run game and executing the offense."
"Focus on the details. Focus on our habits and our fundamentals. Protect the football. We can't do anything but stress it, practice it and address it."
TIME TO STEP UP
For the most part, the Vols young secondary has been impressive and consistent this season. The one exception - the nickel back.
With the current high-scoring and attacking state of college football and the SEC, the extra defensive back plays a vital role for every unit.
Redshirt junior JaRon Toney and true freshman Devaun Swafford have both started at the spot in 2013, and have left defensive coordinator John Jancek waiting for someone to step up.
"We're trying to find consistent play," said Jancek. "When guys get out there they are making mistakes. We're looking for a level of consistency from that position.
"You can't just go with base people and throw a linebacker out there when you're playing these teams that are running three and four wide. You're at a strategic disadvantage and you're at a disadvantage in space. We're trying to get somebody to come alive at that position."
With junior corner Riyahd Jones expected to back in the lineup soon, Jancek and the Vols will possibly look to explore some different options at the nickel.
"That's something - when we got Riyahd (Jones) back - that we may look at," said Jancek. It hasn't come to fruition at this point so we are what we are. We have to keep getting better, focus on us each and every week and improve. That's the message to our guys."
With the dynamic and explosive Georgia offense coming to Neyland Stadium this Saturday, Jancek knows his defense will have its hands full.
"They're a fantastic offense," said Jancek. "They have a great quarterback in Aaron Murray. He's experienced, knows what to do with the football, very accurate and can keep plays alive with his feet. We know that's going to be a big challenge.
"They can strike in a lot of different ways and they can hit big. We know we've got our hands full. That's all I can really say."
Under the direction of Steve Stripling, the defensive line has slowly but surely been progressing.
Always the coach, Stripling can see the improvement in each and every one of his players. But isn't satisfied by where they are at.
"I think as a D-line we are coming along but we have so far to go," said Stripling. "Sometimes we talk in terms of these guys are all freshmen in our program, we have only been here a few months. I think we got some confidence out of last week. They had a little livelier step, that look in their eye."
One of those players who has an extra lift in his step is the big man, Daniel McCullers who has had extra energy heading into this week's meeting with Georgia.
"He has always had a good attitude he is just so quiet you don't know it all the time but he is always listening, learning and trying," said Stripling. "I have never had an issue with his attitude. He has had a good week of practice. I thought today, again, he was really lively, probably the liveliest at the end of a practice than I have seen him."
Another Vol getting his quickness back is Corey Vereen who is still returning to full game action week-by-week.
"When you come off of injury, unless you have ever done that, there is always that moment of truth when you are not sure it is going to hold up," said Stripling. "Corey is past that threshold. He is now playing in games, his reps are adding up, so he is gaining that confidence that he is full speed and full go. Obviously, he adds something for us; he adds an element of quickness and burst. It is nice to see on the field."
The Corey Miller-Corey Vereen tandem combined for a sack and a quarterback hurry during South Alabama's final set of downs last weekend.
The latter Corey had the game ending pressure while the former recorded his second sack of the season, the first time since arriving on Rocky Top he has recorded multiple sacks in a single season, and just five games in.
"He is such a great kid," said Stripling about Miller. "His attitude, work ethic and leadership. You always felt that he would do that but it was developing his physical skills. I think it has come a long way. We are asking a lot of Corey, he plays a lot of spots," said Stripling. "You will see him lining up everywhere across the board. He is not only doing good physically but mentally he is as well."
"Corey is able to handle that," continued Stripling. "Mentally he can play outside, he can play inside, and he can play over the center. He is really taking that challenge and able to play multiple positions."
JUST MAKE PLAYS
Tennessee's defense has accumulated 15 turnovers so far this season. Eleven of those turnovers have been interceptions, three of them resulting in pick-6s. Eleven interceptions in five games is not a normal occurrence in SEC play and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez knows just that.
"The thing we focus the most on is--just play hard, have a great anticipation on what's about to happen to get yourself in the position for those plays," said Martinez. "We've had some interceptions from pressure. We've had some interceptions from good awareness and anticipating on what's about to happen. There's been a couple where there's been bad throws."
Many of those turnovers can be contributed to two younger Volunteers - freshman Cameron Sutton and redshirt sophomore Brian Randolph.
Sutton will experience his first game against his home state this Saturday against the Bulldogs and Martinez is impressed with the rapid progression he has seen in the Jonesboro, Ga., native.
"Cam's a smart player," said Martinez." He's more advanced than a lot of the young guys from a standpoint of understanding the game and the anticipation of what's about to happen."
Martinez has been stressing to the young defense, especially Sutton, that they must always be aware of every situation.
"He knows it and we know it," Martinez said. "Obviously, we have a young team, especially in the secondary and he knows they are going to throw the ball at him. That's why the main focus has been -- to improve every day, everything that we do, every week is to get better at some fundamental or some technique or some awareness of the situation, whether it's a down and distance or a formation, things that they do really well.
"At the end of the day, he has to come back to knowing, `I have to be really solid in my fundamentals to understand the defense.' Know where your help is, know where the strengths and weaknesses are and he does such a good job with that."
Although Randolph has only played one full season before suffering a season-ending injury last year, the Kennesaw, Ga., native, is playing like a veteran. Randolph has had three interceptions in the end zone this season, one of which stopped a game-threatening drive this past Saturday against South Alabama.
"You have to practice red zone," said Martinez. "Again, there have been a couple of them where he has made some really great plays and other ones, there was pressure and the ball was thrown a little bit quicker. It's really a combination of all of it. You have to have pressure to generate those turnovers."
If Martinez can continue to stress one factor to the defense this week, there's one thing he would say -- "Make plays, just make plays, keep making plays."
Here are sound bites from Coach Stripling, Coach Bajakian, Coach Jancek and Coach Martinez:
ASSOCIATE HEAD COACH STEVE STRIPLING
»(On Georgia's run game)
"The running backs are stable, they have a bunch of them. They are fantastic backs. Their speed threatens you, you have to be able to fit up a play, everybody has to be in their gap. The team motto this week is `one.' Everybody one the defense is one defense, everybody has to be in their gap because these backs can hurt you."
»(On SEC teams scoring a lot of points this season)
"I think statistically you see that across the country. It is no fun to coach on defense. The offenses are all rolling. We know that against Georgia we have to stop the run first of all. We have to be perfectly fitted because the backs have great speed. And then when it is pass situations we have to be able to put some pressure on the quarterback."
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN
»(On Georgia's defense)
"They are very talented, I don't know exactly what they were like last year, but I will tell you what they have on the defensive front and the linebacker position is very skilled. Their secondary, while there are a couple of young players, they are very skilled. They have done a good job defensively of limiting people in the run game, and in the pass game too."
»(On Leonard Floyd)
"He is extremely impressive. There are some reps when he is out there playing man-to-man on a slot wide receiver and there are other reps where he is rushing as a defensive end putting a great counter move or spin move on an offensive tackle. He has got a wide skill set, we have made our guys aware of that, and are preparing for it."
»(On Justin Worley getting booed Saturday)
"As a player, and as a coach you are so locked in I don't even know if he heard the boos. It is disappointing because he is out there giving a great effort. But hey, again, that comes with the position and being here at the University of Tennessee and having a high expectation for ourselves. When we don't execute, we are the first people to be disappointed. It is part of the deal."
»(On preparing for a 3-4 or a 4-3)
"There is so much that goes into attacking a defense. As much as it is scheme it is also personnel based and finding the best personnel matchups and trying to accentuate what you might have in your favor there. It is partially schemes, it is partially personnel."
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK
»(On reconnecting with Coach Butch Jones at Central Michigan)
"Really it was getting back with a good friend I could trust and feel comfortable with. It was a great staff and I knew I was going to have added responsibilities with Butch and that's what I was looking for in this profession. It was a natural fit for me and fortunately we're here now at Tennessee in a great place. We just have to keep getting better."
»(On not facing as mobile a quarterback this week)
"Aaron is good enough to get out the pocket, improvise, keep plays alive and keep the chains moving. So really, he has the ability to hurt you with his feet and get out of the pocket. We have to be conscious of that and keep our points on the quarterback.
"That's been a major point of emphasis for us the last couple weeks. Last week we left about five or six sacks out on the field just because we didn't do a good job of keeping him in the pocket when we pressured or even just when we rushed four. We have to focus on that and keep him in the pocket."
»(On Keith Marshall)
"He's got great speed, good balance and good size. He sees things well in the hole and lateral quickness. The other thing too is he catches the ball out of the backfield; he's got good hands. He's very dynamic with the ball."
»(On Aaron Murray looking-off the secondary)
"A good quarterback is going to do that to you. You have to see that when you're coming off the ball, before you start breaking and driving. It's going to be a big challenge for us defensively."
ASSISTANT HEAD COACH/DBs COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
»(On defensive progression)
"We have a long way to go. There's obviously a lot of room for improvement. We're not happy with some of the things that have happened to us either, so it keeps us on the edge. It keeps us focused. This game that we're playing, we've already played some games like this this year, but when you have a great quarterback like Aaron Murray, you have great running backs and great wide receivers, you're basically playing a three-headed horse so to speak. They have our attention and we have to do a good job of executing our defense, because we are going to have our hands full."
»(On coaching with John Jancek again)
"It's really easy when you're football coaches when you're a teacher and you guys believe in the same philosophies or you believe in the same schemes or the fundamentals. It's kind of easy to work together. Obviously, we've been doing it for a long time. We've been friends for a long time. That's no different than a lot of staffs. When you see people that know each other, they understand what they want, what they expect, so it's been a great work relationship. It makes things a lot easier."
»(On recruiting Cameron Sutton to Auburn)
"I've always loved him. I always wanted him when I was at Auburn. The things that turned me on the most about him was that he played three sports. He was a starter in all of them. He's a competitive kid. Every time you would talk to somebody about him, they said nothing but praised him and talked about how well of a team guy he was, how smart he was, how athletic he was. So, we recruited him.
"I think it's pretty good. I think it's high. He had three PBUs his last ballgame, two of them were in the end zone that would have been touchdowns if he doesn't make a play. I think it's pretty good. That's the life of a corner. When you have the mojo going, the key is to keep it, because they're going to keep on coming after you."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)