Hanging Tough on Defense

UT Vols Football | Photo by Carlos Reveiz

A hard-fought 20-13 victory over Texas A&M set the Vols up for a visit to Alabama

Defensive back Dee Williams came to UT in 2022 from Forsyth, Georgia, by way of East Central (Mississippi) Community College. In his debut last fall he returned a punt against LSU for 58 yards to set up a field goal, returned one 73 yards for a touchdown against Vanderbilt, averaged 18.7 yards on punt returns and 17 on kickoff returns for the season, and was named a preseason fourth-team All-America returner. 

Midway through the third quarter against Texas A&M this October 14, as a member of UT’s punting team, Williams found himself near the goal line. “All eyes were on the returner,” said Williams. “I saw the ball pop up in the air and I heard someone say, ‘Ball! Ball!’ I looked up and thought, ‘Why not make a play on it?’” As he caught it, one toe almost touched the goal line. “I looked down at my feet and looked at the referee and saw him flag it down on the 1. Oh, well.”

Playing tough, as it did all evening, UT’s defense gave the Aggie runners no quarter on three plays, so the punter had only 10 yards of end zone. “We sent our rush in so they had to get the ball out quickly,” said Williams, who had to advance 10 or 20 yards to field the ball on the 39. He zigged left, zagged right, and used his blockers to dodge a passel of Aggies on his way to the right side of the end zone. “We had 10 guys competing their butts off to get him in the end zone,” said Heupel. It gave the Vols a 14-10 lead with just under seven minutes left in the third quarter.

“It’s amazing,” said Williams, asked how it felt. “It’s something I’ve been working hard for. I have to thank God for the talent that I have. All I know is to work as hard as I can.”

“Dee is just very electric when the ball is in his hands,” said running back Jaylen Wright, who himself ran for 139 yards against A&M. 

“Anytime Dee has the ball in his hands, I am expecting a touchdown,” said linebacker Aaron Beasley, who had five tackles on the evening and helped his comrades hound A&M quarterback Matt Johnson into making several ill-advised throws.

2023 Cityview Magazine, Inc. UT Vols Football | Photo by Carlos Reveiz

One ill-advised throw came with 3:48 left in the game and the Vols up 17-13. Cornerback Gabe Jeudy-Lally picked it off on the left sideline and ran 36 yards to A&M’s 6. A 24-yard Charles Campbell field goal made it 20-17 with 2:31 left to play. 

Gabriel Valentin Jeudy was born in New York City. His mother, Alla, is Ukrainian. (Her father played for the Ukranian national soccer team.) From his mother and Russian nannies, Russian was his first language, and he remains fluent in it. English came later, when Alla married Thomas Lally and moved to Austin, Texas, a noted quarterback factory. “Baker Mayfield, Drew Brees, Nick Foles went to school right down the street from me,” said Jeudy-Lally in a podcast. 

His stepfather coached him in Pee Wee football before he moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and played for Ardrey Kell High. In three seasons with Vanderbilt, Jeudy-Lally earned his bachelor’s degree in human organizational development with a minor in business. In a season at BYU, he started 10 games and started on his MBA, then transferred (along with linebacker Keenan Pili) to UT. Jeudy-Lally, who is working on his master’s in recreation and sport management, described his interception with the thoughtful eloquence of a philosophy PhD candidate: “It’s what we prepare for every single day. Coach [Defensive Coordinator Tim] Banks, he just put us in the right spot. The quarterback overthrew his receiver. We gotta get them.”

“That was a good ass interception,” interjected defensive end Tyler Baron earthily.

A quarterback hurry by defensive end James Pearce Jr. and a great play by defensive back Tamarion McDonald broke up a second-down pass with 40 seconds to go. After another incompletion, cornerback Kamal Hadden picked off Johnson’s fourth-and-10 pass to seal the 20-17 victory. 

It was Hadden’s second interception in two games, having had a 28-yard pick-six in the 41-20 win over South Carolina, and emblematic of the UT defense’s transformation from inconsistent to formidable. In postgame interviews it was suggested that Hadden was bouncing back from playing not so well. “I’m sorry,” said Baron, earthy once again. “But I wouldn’t say ‘Bounce back.’ He’s been doing his job the whole time.”

“I’m not sure what other people have seen,” said Jeudy-Lally. “But I’ve seen a guy that puts his head down and goes to work every single day. A guy that has dominated regardless of the situation. It always looks different to other people. But when we’re in the film room, we see a guy that is going out there and doing his job. Since I’ve been here that’s all I’ve seen the whole time so I’m proud of him and I’m proud of all of us.”

2023 Cityview Magazine, Inc. UT Vols Football | Photo by Carlos Reveiz

A Day for Defense

“How about that, man? Wow,” said Heupel after the epic defensive struggle. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in one of these. And I’m good with it. I like coming out on the right side of it. Obviously, offensively, we want to be more efficient when we can be. But I said when I got here, the standard here is to play elite defense. Not just good defense.”

“Today we had the offense’s back,” said Beasley. “They weren’t having their best day, and we had their back.”

On a tough defensive line of Baron, Omari Thomas, and Omarr Norman-Lott, Pearce has been swarming the opposing offensive line and making plays like a video-game character possessed by aliens. “I can’t say enough about James,” said Beasley. “He’s different. He’s a different guy. I like playing with him, man. As you can see, his play, it speaks for itself.” Pearce’s three solo tackles against A&M included a sack that maintained his average of a sack a game. He also had five quarterback hurries. “James is getting better every week,” said Heupel.  

“We’ve been dealing with him all summer,” added Wright. “He’s a dog.” 

The Volunteers had “self-inflicted wounds,” said Heupel, referring to the 12 penalties for 115 yards. “They kill ya, man.” 

The running tandem of Wright, Jabari Small, and Dylan Sampson netted 232 yards. “We feed off each other,” said Wright. “We’re brothers.” 

2023 Cityview Magazine, Inc. UT Vols Football | Photo by Carlos Reveiz

The run total included eight runs by quarterback Joe Milton, one for 19 yards, but he totaled only 100 yards passing and forced a ball to Dont’e Thornton in double coverage in the center of the end zone that was picked off. “That was a critical error by him,” said Heupel. “Sometimes that happens at quarterback, but we don’t want it to happen anymore.” On one play Milton hit a wide-open Ramel Keyton who had an open field between him and the end zone. Inexplicably, the ball spun off Keyton’s hands as if controlled by an impish drone pilot. 

Heupel said the passing troubles are a matter of the quarterback, “the wide receivers—all of us—being on the same page.” But, Heupel added, “Through all the ups and downs, Joe continued to fight, continued to compete, continued to be willing to go out there and play the next play. That’s where it starts as a competitor.”

As he looked toward their visit to Tuscaloosa on October 21, Beasley said, “We’re ready for whatever comes our way.” 

Against Bama, Squirrel White made an improbable diving fingertip catch on the left side of the goal line for a 39-yard touchdown to put UT up 7-0. The defense had its moments, holding fast on several third downs. Pearce made a first-quarter sack and caused a fumble that Omar Norman-Lott recovered, setting up a field goal for a 13-0 lead. On the day Norman-Lott also had a sack, as did Jeudy-Lally and Joshua Josephs. With Bama threatening in the Red Zone, cornerback Doneiko Slaughter tapped a pass in the right corner of the end zone that safety Jaylen McCollough intercepted. That set up a long drive capped with a 10-yard pass to tight end McCallan Castles that made it 20-7 at the half. 

Then came the second half. Bama scored on its first possession to cut the lead to 20-14, quickly added a field goal, another TD and a field goal to go up 27-20. Then a blindside sack of Milton forced a fumble that Bama ran back for its final TD to seal a 34-20 victory. Milton ran for 59 yards, but otherwise UT’s running game curiously never got in gear. In all, Bama held UT to one touchdown in four Red Zone trips, and the Vols were penalized eight times for 55 yards.

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