Tennessee head coach Butch Jones emerged from a black curtain and took a seat behind a row of microphones and recorders.
He paused, took a swig of water and flashed an ear-to-ear grin.
“General Neyland Maxim Two,” he said, face still glowing.
Maxim No. 2 of Neyland’s seven reads, “play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way - score.”
Put a check mark next to that one.
The Tennessee defense forced seven turnovers, the most the Vols have recorded in a game since 1984.
It’s an easy way to elicit a smile from your head coach.
“I thought we were opportunistic in the first half,” Jones said. “I was really proud of our kids, the coaching staff. Our kids were ready to play.”
That said, there is much room for improvement after the Vols thrashed Western Kentucky 52-20.
“We need to continue to improve each week,” Jones said. “Obviously we're going to enjoy this one, but moving forward I think we all know what's in store next week."
Updates and notes
Jones said Curt Maggitt was “close” to playing Saturday, but the linebacker “still has a way to go.”
Jones expects the team to be with Jacques Smith this week. Smith did not dress Saturday.
The Vols’ first penalty of the season came with 34 seconds remaining in the second half. That’s six quarters without a penalty.
Jones said the earliest he got home last week was 11:30 p.m.
Jones said he was “very, very pleased” with the defense’s ability to apply pressure with the front four.
Not taking the blame
Statistics don’t lie.
Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley was 3-of-9 for 35 yards at halftime. He finished the game going 11-of-19 for 142 yards, tallying a touchdown and an interception. The Worley-helmed Vols were 0-for-5 on third down conversations in the first half.
But go ahead and throw the stats out the window.
You didn’t need a box score to know the senior quarterback struggled against the Hilltoppers.
Worley would beg to differ.
He believes the blame for the below-average passing stats is shared.
“I wouldn't say I was struggling. We had a couple drops and that hurt,” Worley said. “I couldn't get in a rhythm just based on the number of plays that we had. We had nine or so plays in the first quarter. Not getting in a rhythm never helps, but I don't think I struggled."
Jones said post-game that Worley’s performance could have been better in many ways, but he too believes young wideouts and dropped balls aren’t helping Worley progress.
“I think our young wideouts have to do a better job of going and snatching the ball, owning the ball in the air,” Jones said.
Jones wasn’t referring to Johnathon Johnson and Josh Smith with that critique.
The sophomore and freshman were the subject of much praise after the win.
Jones said Smith and Johnson “stepped up,” adding that the duo continues to make strides each week.
They’re certainly developing into two of Worley’s favorite targets. Smith and Johnson combined for 114 of the Vols’ 142 receiving yards.
"They've done a great job and have learned the offense and the new responses of different routes and progressions and things like that,” Worley said of the receiving duo. “I'm comfortable throwing to them. It's a big thing having that chemistry."
Success comes with simplicity
Time and time again last season, a Tennessee defender would look toward the sideline, pinch his shoulders and jut his arms outward.
It’s the universal sign of confusion.
The gesture hasn’t been made this season.
And Daniel Hood doesn’t expect it will any time soon.
"I think it's a lot better,” Hood said when asked to compare this year’s defense to last. “Guys are just playing so much harder and they know their assignments and those two things alone make up for a lot of."
The improvement is due to simplicity.
Hood remembers having 21 checks on one offensive formation last season. He said the complexity clouded judgment and caused players to constantly second guess themselves.
This season, Hood said, the defense is predicated on “flying around and making plays.”
“It's not that much smaller in terms it's just - there's not one hundred checks for each formation it's just there was one play we had last year,” Hood said. “Just having simplified checks and being able to play fast will make all the difference in the world."
Turnovers delay rhythm
Ju’Wuan James thought he was making a joke.
But there was more truth to it than he knew.
“Our defense did a great job with turnovers, so (the offense) were just out there for field goals and that was it,” Tennessee’s right tackle said.
James then paused, thinking about his statement.
The Vols’ defense forced five turnovers in six plays. The offense spent much of the first half as nothing more than cheerleaders. It’s not the ideal way to develop a rhythm.
“We can’t use that as a excuse, but it was hard to find a rhythm,” James said.
James and the Vols offense got their chance to find consistency in the second half. Production improved dramatically.
"We got in a rhyme in the second half. That tempo killed them,” James said. “We saw guys with their hands on their hips. When we see that, that's when we attack."
The Vols did just that. Tennessee rushed for more than 90 yards in both the third and fourth quarter.
As strange as it sounds, the offense’s two-faced performance is a positive to left tackle Antonio Richardson.
To Richardson, beating quality teams and still having room to improve makes him optimistic.
"I don't think you would want to peek early. You look at the film and say we can be this much better,” Richardson said. “It says a lot when you beat a team like that who is in the Sun Belt, but is a really good team that could possible be in the top 25 at the end of the year. I think that that says a lot, and we can keep on getting better."