For Darrell Taylor and Deandre Johnson, Saturday’s season-opening matchup with Georgia State has long-been circled on their calendars.
And it has nothing to do with the opponent.
When Tennessee’s season ended at the hands of Vanderbilt nine months ago, the defense had just been embarrassed, giving up 38 points to a Kyle Shurmer-led offense.
On the season, UT surrendered nearly 29 points per game.
This year, Taylor and the Vols will be looking to reverse those fortunes, and that all starts with their improvement on that side of the ball.
“I think I have improved as far as being more consistent, staying the course and making sure my teammates are improving as well,” Taylor said. “I think that we have all been doing a great job staying consistent and making sure we are doing the right things every day.”
It’s the little things that the Vols are looking to tweak as they get set to kick off the 2019 regular season.
Whether that’s working on technique in every practice or spending extra time in the weight room, Tennessee’s defense is looking to change the narrative surrounding it following last season’s abysmal end.
In the case of Johnson, the junior linebacker felt an increasing need to focus on his conditioning during the offseason, becoming a mainstay in the training room.
“I feel like this camp, I just had to focus on my weight,” Johnson said. “Get in the weight room and perfecting my craft by learning the ins and outs of my position.”
Although known for his quickness and speed, Johnson dedicated countless hours to the basics, including regular film sessions throughout the summer.
It was through these that the Miami, Florida native learned to switch up his rushing technique, someone he credits to persistence and perseverance when the cameras aren’t around.
“Starting with my strength, my speed was always a strength of mine,” Johnson said. “But focusing on my weight, upper body strength and changing my rush up a little bit, learning the angles of pass rushing and watching film.”
Tennessee’s leading pass rusher from a year ago, Taylor heads into 2019 with plenty of buzz swirling around him.
Not only did he lead UT in sacks last season, but the redshirt senior is the SEC’s returning leader in that category while being named preseason All-Conference Third Team.
Despite these accolades, Taylor’s focus has been on anything but individual acclaim. Instead, he’s zoned in on how much he can improve both on the field and in the locker room.
“I am more physical in the run game and have a better understanding of what plays I’m going to be in,” Taylor said. “My technique has improved along with knowing my assignments.”
Those assignments will finally come front-and-center for Taylor on Saturday as the Vols prepare for their first taste of in-game action. In real-time, Tennessee has not participated in meaningful football for 275 days.
While camp provides a brief glimpse into that, it’s nowhere near the same in terms of intensity.
That’s what the Vols have been getting both their minds and bodies ready for since spring practice ended and if Tuesday was any indication, they’re prepared to get the ball rolling.
“It’s a big change. Camp starts to take a toll on your body,” Taylor said. “Transitioning to the season allows you to take better care of yourself as you prepare for games.”
Tennessee hosts Georgia State on Saturday, Aug. 31 at Neyland Stadium. The game can be seen live on ESPNU.