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Jimmy Hyams: Tennessee’s defense surprised and proved championship worthy

Doneiko Slaughter was on the Tennessee team that went 3-7 in 2020.

He was around when Tennessee barely drew 50,000 fans to some games. When you couldn’t give away tickets. When the Vols had no chance to beat the likes of Alabama or Georgia.

He saw more than 40 players leave the program for a variety of reasons over a 12-month period.

So when he was asked if he was surprised that Tennessee is 8-0 and ranked third in the country he gave an honest answer.

“Yes, yes I am,’’ Slaughter said. “When Heup (coach Josh Heupel) first came through, he’s a great coach, for real. He’s a great guy. He brought a lot of energy.

“As soon as he stepped in, I just felt it. The whole room’s mood changed.’’

So did the results on the field.

Tennessee trounced Kentucky 44-6 Saturday night at Neyland Stadium before an ESPN audience to solidify its spot as the third-ranked team and to set up an epic battle with No. 1 Georgia on Saturday.

Slaughter is a prime example of why Tennessee has made the mercurial jump from below average two years ago to elite.

Slaughter hadn’t played much this season. He was thrust into the starting lineup at safety with the absence of Jalen McCullough. Against Kentucky, he played cornerback – and he made a huge impact.

He made a terrific interception, and he also broke up a pass that was deflected to linebacker Juwan Mitchell for one of three picks off Kentucky quarterback Will Levis.

Doneiko Slaughter following Tennessee’s 44-6 win over Kentucky

Tennessee’s maligned defense – it surrendered 594 yards to Florida and 569 to Alabama – was stifling. Kentucky managed just six points – none in the final 49 minutes. It limited Kentucky’s run game to 107 yards on 36 carries – less than 3.0 yards per carry. It held the Wildcats to 2 of 13 on third down. And it frustrated Levis into a three-interception, 98-passing-yards game.

“The defense did an unbelievable job,’’ Heupel said. “We controlled and dominated the line of scrimmage.’’

How often have you been able to say that about a Heupel defense?

This was the same defense that allowed 42 points and 612 yards to Kentucky last year.

Actually, it’s not the same defense. It’s much better.

Yes, at times it has leaked oil. But not against the Wildcats, who had lost just one game this year with Levis at quarterback.

Slaughter, Mitchell and Brandon Turnage had interceptions – each with the first of their UT career.

The defense also made a key stop late in the first half that led to a Vols’ score for a 27-6 lead at the break. And the defense helped give UT field position inside Kentucky’s territory five times.

Heupel said he thought Slaughter “did a great job.’’ But Slaughter wasn’t the only one. The defensive line and linebackers whipped Kentucky’s outmanned offensive line.

It’s hard to imagine that after Tennessee struck quickly with a touchdown less than 90 seconds into the game, the Vols wouldn’t need to score again. Kentucky also scored in the first quarter but had an extra point blocked and didn’t get on the board after that.

Meanwhile, the offense was efficient – though not as explosive as usual. Quarterback Hendon Hooker threw three touchdown passes and ran for one.

Receiver Jalin Hyatt caught two touchdown passes to set a school record for TD catches in a season at 14 – breaking Marcus Nash’s record. He totaled five catches for 138 yards. He had a 14-quarter streak with 11 scoring receptions.

Jabari Small had 78 yards and Jaylen Wright averaged 10.4 yards on seven carries and scored a touchdown.

Cedric Tillman made his return to the lineup after suffering a high ankle sprain and had four catches for 22 yards.

The offense gained 422 yards – almost 150 below UT’s average. And the offense didn’t capitalize several times when it had prime field position.

While the offense has been the story of the season, Tennessee’s defense was the story of the night.

It harassed Levis. It held Chris Rodriguez to 64 yards on 15 carries. And it delivered some punishing blows, led by Slaughter.

Slaughter was asked if he preferred playing safety or cornerback.

‘Honestly, I like being in the box more,’’ he said. “I like hitting more.’’

Turnage, who played one of his best games in a UT uniform, was asked if he likes to hit as much as Slaughter.

“I like to hit,’’ he said, “but probably not as much as Neiko because he’s a Slaughter.’’

And Slaughter helped Tennessee deliver its best defensive performance of the season.

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