KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is accustomed to kicking off the year with a dominant defensive performance.
This time, the Volunteers want to keep that momentum going the rest of the season for a change.
Tennessee held Utah State star quarterback Chuckie Keeton in check and forced three turnovers Sunday in a 38-7 rout of the Aggies. The performance offered reason to believe Tennessee could have an improved defense, even though all-Southeastern Conference linebacker A.J. Johnson is the only returning starter from last year's front seven.
"It was just smart swarming that we practiced and preached all camp, all year long really," defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt said.
Then again, this type of season-opening performance isn't all that unusual for Tennessee, even during the program's recent slide.
The Vols blanked UT Martin 50-0 in their 2010 season opener and shut out Austin Peay 45-0 to kick off the 2013 season. They opened 2012 by picking off four passes and producing a safety in a 35-21 victory over North Carolina State.
Tennessee ended up with losing records each of those seasons. Tennessee's 2012 defense statistically was among the worst in school history. Last year, the Vols ranked 11th out of 14 SEC teams in total defense.
They're trying to get better even though they've gotten younger, particularly up front. Their next test comes Saturday against Arkansas State, which opened its season with a 37-10 victory over Montana State.
"We're going to have to swarm," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "We're going to have to play with great effort. If we don't, we become very average."
Tennessee's ability to stifle Utah State provided cause for optimism.
Last year, Tennessee continually struggled to slow down mobile quarterbacks such as Oregon's Marcus Mariota and Auburn's Nick Marshall. The Vols showed Sunday they'd improved in that regard.
Keeton, who was being promoted by Utah State as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, threw two interceptions and only one touchdown pass. He ran for only 12 yards on eight carries in his return from a knee injury that sidelined him for the final eight games of the 2013 season.
Utah State didn't cross midfield until its first drive of the second half, didn't score until the fourth quarter and went just 3 of 14 on third-down conversions. The Vols face another mobile quarterback Saturday when they try slowing down Fredi Knighten, who rushed for 104 yards and threw for 219 yards against Montana State.
Tennessee's improved speed on defense also prevented the Vols from being as vulnerable to the big play, a major weakness in recent seasons. Utah State's lone touchdown came on a two-play, 75-yard drive, but the Aggies' offense didn't have any other gains of over 16 yards.
The defense was making big plays instead of allowing them. Tennessee forced three turnovers that resulted in 17 points. Johnson had his first career interception and also his second career forced fumble, with both takeaways leading to touchdowns. Johnson had such a productive evening that he even conducted Tennessee's band in a rendition of "Rocky Top" during the Vols' postgame celebration.
"It was a great feeling," Johnson said. "I'd never done that before. For a second, I was off beat. I had to get on beat, but it felt good."Comment on this story
Johnson forced the fumble while helping out on kickoff coverage. The star linebacker's willingness to assist on special teams shows how he's leading a defense that has plenty of talent but little experience.
"I spoke with A.J. the other day, and I said, 'For as much as you hold yourself accountable, you need to start holding your teammates accountable to the same accountability you hold yourself to,' " Jones said.
If the Vols continue following Johnson's example, this might be the year they continue playing solid defense long after their opening game.