KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's defense spent most of Saturday afternoon with its back against the wall.
Testing the situational fortitude of his football team, coach Butch Jones put the Volunteers' offense less than 20 yards from the end zone during most of the final spring scrimmage before next Saturday's Orange and White Game.
After forcing four early turnovers, the defense was unable to maintain the momentum during an afternoon that was a microcosm of the unit's spring.
"We know our backs are against the wall, but we do that to see who's going to fold and who's going to show up and play," linebacker Dontavis Sapp said after Tennessee wrapped up the scrimmage on another picturesque afternoon at Neyland Stadium. "[Getting turnovers] was a big emphasis, but we had three real early. We've got to get some more at the end of the scrimmage and the middle of the scrimmage and keep those going.
"I felt the intensity kind of wear off after a while, so we were trying to get that back up and get some more turnovers and do what we needed to do to get stops."
Another practice meant another day of teaching opportunities for Jones, who again ran his team through a gamut of situations, from red-zone possessions and goal-to-go situations to a last-play scenario and late-game drill where the offense took over and the defense had two timeouts left and needed to get a quick stop with 2:22 remaining.
Jones said he liked the players' energy and how they responded to the challenge coaches gave them.
"We tried to put our defense in some really challenging situations today," Jones said. "I think the greatest teaching point of the spring came true when we finally swarmed to the football. We have a thing called 'blind tackles,' and we created a fumble and we created a turnover.
"We have to understand we're going to play like that on each and every snap."
The play Jones referenced came on the first-team offense's second possession from the 13-yard line. Quarterback Justin Worley threw a middle bubble screen to Pig Howard, and safety Brian Randolph popped the sophomore receiver as he neared the goal line, jarring the ball loose. Defensive lineman Daniel Hood emerged from the pile with the football.
"I saw him coming," Howard explained, "and I kind of tried to spin out of it, but at the end of the day, he got a good lick, I didn't protect the ball and that's something I'm going to improve."
On the first possession of the scrimmage, linebacker A.J. Johnson bolted into the backfield and scooped up a botched handoff between Worley and tailback Rajion Neal.
The offense's next series, which also began on its own 37, ended in cornerback Justin Coleman's acrobatic leaping one-handed interception in the end zone that drew an "Ooh" from those in attendance, mostly the high school coaches on campus for the weekend's coaching clinic.
The Vols then focused a big chunk of the scrimmage on the red zone.
"One thing about Coach Jones is he'll do something to better both sides," Howard said. "Not only do we work on our red-zone routes, but when the defense is in that type of situation come the game, he's trying to see how they're going to respond. He did that for the both of us.
"We handled it very well and we got after the defense today, but we both have our days."
The fourth turnover came during a red-zone series when quarterback Nathan Peterman forced a throw into the end zone as he was scrambling. Safety Geraldo Orta intercepted.
"He did a good job of playing me like he was going to come up on me, and I thought I was going to throw it right over his head," Peterman said. "He came up on me with his eyes and then backed off, and I tried to throw it up over his head and he backed off right when I threw it, so I've just got to be more careful with the ball. I'm going to do that, and I'm going to get better from it."
The redshirt freshman also will take a lesson from the four-minute period where the offense was trying to run out the clock. Instead of taking a sack, Peterman threw a ball into the turf when a defensive lineman broke free into the backfield. The sequence caused Jones to bark, "Eat it! We'll take the 3-yard loss!" into his microphone and restart the series.
"I was upset with what I did," Peterman said, "but I think it was great that Coach Jones did that because it's holding me accountable. I need to be accountable to the whole offense and the whole team really, and that was a mistake on my part. We need to take a sack and let the clock run down.
"That was good. It's a teaching moment and I'm going to learn from it."
Tennessee's defense took a step by creating a quartet turnovers after forcing none in an otherwise dominant performance in the last scrimmage, but much like the two practices this past week, the Vols faded a little bit, allowing their offensive counterparts to score touchdowns on six of eight simulated red-zone possessions.
"We knew we had a lot of adversity as far as the situations this scrimmage, so they wanted to see how we responded," safety Byron Moore said. "I think we lost a little bit of energy we had last week, but it's just part of coming down to these last few practices where bodies are starting to get tired and you're mentally fatigued. We've got to push through and come out here the two practices next week before the spring game and just give it our all and finish this thing out right."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...