KNOXVILLE -- If Tennessee wants to keep the Vanderbilt Commodores from making the 182-mile drive to Knoxville and heading back to Nashville on Interstate 40 with a win, the Volunteers better keep a close eye on the football.
The Commodores enter Saturday night's game off three wins in four games largely because they've thrived on turnovers.
Vanderbilt is second in the SEC behind only East Division leader Missouri in turnover margin (plus-9) and takeaways, and the Commodores turned seven interceptions into 35 points in wins against Florida and Kentucky the past two games.
"They're extremely disciplined," freshman quarterback Josh Dobbs said Tuesday evening after Tennessee's practice. "They've done a great job the past couple weeks with turnovers. We have to make sure we're playing smart, disciplined football."
In notching the program's first win at Florida since 1945, Vanderbilt intercepted Gators quarterback Tyler Murphy three times, which led to short touchdown drives of 10, 22 and 4 yards in a 31-17 victory. Last week against Kentucky in Nashville, the Commodores drove 26 and 55 yards for touchdowns following interceptions in a 22-6 win.
Vanderbilt, which is only 10th in the SEC in total offense at 371.2 yards per game, also forced four turnovers in its upset of Georgia last month.
The Commodores start four seniors in their secondary, and that experienced group will test Dobbs, who threw four interceptions in his first two starts against Missouri and Auburn, and Tennessee's receiving corps.
"They're a very skilled secondary, and they definitely have our respect, and deservedly so," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "They don't give up big plays. It's a veteran group that have played together for a long period of time, so they understand their scheme. They execute their scheme.
"They're disciplined, they're fundamentally sound and the other thing is they're very, very good tacklers. They don't miss tackles, and they don't give up big plays, so they force you to be perfect. What we have to do is take what they give us, and we have to execute. They force offenses to execute."
Ja'Wuan James will start the 48th game of his career at right tackle Saturday night, which will tie him with Jeff Smith for the most starts by a Tennessee offensive lineman in program history. The senior, who's started every game of his career, would set a new mark if he starts at Kentucky next week.
Yet James is just one of three starters on the Vols' offensive line who started multiple games as true freshmen in 2010, and the trio of James, right guard Zach Fulton and center James Stone had a little fun watching video from their first seasons Monday night after watching tape of Vanderbilt.
"It looks terrible," James joked. "Back then, you think you're doing kind of good, but it looked terrible. We've come a long way. It's just a blessing to play this long and play for this university. We were just sitting there laughing at how terrible we looked."
Added Fulton: "We actually saw how bad we were and understood why our coaches were yelling at us all the time. It's great to see that we've improved a good amount."
The Vols' offensive line faced lofty expectations entering the season, and despite some struggles, Tennessee is on pace to register its best season on the ground since 2004. The Vols ran for 2,418 yards in 13 games that season, and only once (2009) did Tennessee crack the 2,000-yard rushing mark in a season.
With two regular-season games left, the Vols have run for 1,859 yards.
"I feel we haven't yet played our best game, especially together," James said. "We have a bunch of guys doing good here, doing good there, but not all five of us have [had] our greatest game together. We've still got two opportunities to do that, and I feel like we can."
Walls to return
Tennessee defensive end Marlon Walls is eager to get back on the field after missing the Auburn game with a groin injury.
"Coach made the decision," he said. "He let me warm up or whatever on game day and decided not to let me go. I'm still kind of mad about that one, but Coach, he's the boss. Overall, I think it was good for me.
"I'm motivated. Not being able to go on the field two weeks in a row, it pushes you. Right now, I'm motivated and ready to go play some ball."
The fifth-year senior, the team leader in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (6.5), took first-team repetitions during Tuesday's practice at one end spot in place of fellow senior Corey Miller.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 ...