When Jeremy Pruitt first brought former Oakland Raiders defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley back to Knoxville in February, Ansley, a Tallahassee, Alabama native that spent his collegiate playing years at Troy, had already developed a reputation as one of the SEC’s strongest recruiters during his time at Kentucky and Alabama.
His lone season in Oakland saw his group produce 14 interceptions in 16 games — up five from the previous year.
After giving up nearly 28 points per game a season ago, Ansley is looking to build Tennessee’s defense back into a national powerhouse — something that can only be accomplished through repetition and continuity.
“It improves because the guys are a year older in scheme,” Ansley said. “Going through the spring and having acclimated practices in the summer, you can also get around and develop them a little bit more.”
With a year of experience in Pruitt’s defensive system now under their belts, the Vols are looking to take it to the next level in 2019 — a reality that Ansley is well-aware of ahead of UT’s season-opener against Georgia State on Aug. 31.
“I think the familiarity with the scheme and the coaching staff kind of helps guys calm down,” Ansley said. “(Just) take a deep breath and see things a little bit clearer.”
Capturing two national championships during his time on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama, Ansley also helped Minkah Fitzpatrick capture the Jim Thorpe and Chuck Bednarik Awards in 2017, which are handed out to the nation’s top defensive back and defensive player respectively.
Alabama also had the nation’s top-ranked scoring and total defense in both seasons, leading the nation in defensive touchdowns with 11 in 2017.
Senior linebacker Daniel Bituli got a chance to witness both of those teams up close, with the Crimson Tide outscoring Tennessee 77-17 in their respective matchups. For Bituli, the chance to work with Ansley and learn from one of the nation’s top defensive minds was an opportunity not many could pass up.
“Coach Ansley has helped this defense out in a lot of ways, and we’re glad to have him here,” Daniel Bituli said. “Being extra, his play calling, he explains to you how he wants to go about making plays.”
Having coached with him in Tuscaloosa for two seasons, Pruitt knew exactly what he was getting when he made that call to Ansley in February.
“I have confidence in the guys we have on defense,” Pruitt said. “I’ve said that in every defensive meeting with the players and the coaches, so it’d really no different from last year in that aspect.”
Having coached some of the nation’s most prolific groups of defensive backs in terms of takeaways, Ansley is looking to bring that same philosophy to the Vols as they get set to take on Georgia State to kick off the regular season.
A style that has served him well in the past, Ansley is a big proponent of the ball-hawking secondary that creates turnovers. Limited in that regard last season, Tennessee produced just nine total interceptions and scored just two defensive touchdowns.
Thankfully for them, their defensive coordinator is a man that advocates solid play on the outside.
“The style of defense we want to play, you have to be really good on the outside and on the perimeter,” Ansley said. “If you don’t have really good corners, it places a limitation on your defense.”
As the Vols prepare to rid themselves of those limitations from a year ago, they’ll certainly be leaning on Ansley’s expertise — and swagger — to get them to where they need to be.
“Those guys have a lot of room to improve, a lot of work to do, but they’re trending in the right direction.”