KNOXVILLE — Tyler Johnston III didn’t mean for his pass to end up in the hands of Bryce Thompson, but it did.
Tennessee’s sophomore cornerback snagged an interception on the UAB quarterback’s pass, cutting short the Blazers’ drive just one play into their first possession on Saturday.
Then, it happened again. And again.
Thompson got three interceptions during the Vols’ 30-7 Homecoming win over UAB, pacing a defense that allowed 237 total yards.
“Honestly, it was perfect play-calling,” Thompson said. “The first one, I was in the flats, my man went vertical to the safety, so I went to help out the linebacker over the top. Quarterback threw it right to me and it was all she wrote from there.”
It marked the first time that a Tennessee player totaled three interceptions in a single game since Deon Grant did so against Auburn in 1999.
“(Thompson) really just done what he’s supposed to do,” Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “One time, we’re playing cut, he splits the zone. The quarterback stares down. They run four verticals. Makes a poor throw. He breaks on the ball.
“One time, they run a deep comeback. We’re playing two-man. The ball really shouldn’t be (thrown) out there. It was. He made them pay there. And then the last time, he was playing the ‘money’ position … he made a good play undercutting the guy.”
The strong performance wasn’t important just because it aided the Vols’ winning effort, or because it tied a record, though. It signified a key moment in Thompson’s Tennessee career that, for a while, seemed to be in danger of ending prematurely.
Thompson was arrested on a misdemeanor domestic assault charge in August, stemming from an argument with his girlfriend that reportedly featured him threatening her and to “shoot up the school.”
He was reinstated to the team on Sept. 11, and the charge was later dismissed.
“Just not being around my team really for three weeks, it did hurt,” Thompson said. “But it was definitely a learning lesson. I’m just glad to be back on the team with my family, honestly.”
Thompson has also been dealing with a leg injury and has had to play with a brace.
“I try to tell myself, ‘Mind over matter.’ Because everybody’s banged up right now,” Thompson said. “It’s the SEC. Alabama’s got players banged up. Georgia’s got players banged up. So I felt like I need to play even if I’m banged up at the moment.”
Impressive play wasn’t foreign to Thompson before his injury, his suspension, or even this season, however.
He was named an FWAA Freshman All-American and to the SEC All-Freshman Team after totaling 34 tackles and three interceptions last season, the latter of which he matched in just one game on Saturday.
Pruitt himself played defensive back in college and often gives individual attention to helping coach Tennessee’s secondary. And the Vols’ new defensive coordinator, Derrick Ansley, is the team’s defensive backs coach along with his coordinator duties.
That is a recipe for success for a young player already gifted with experience and talent.
“(Ansley) is one of the best coaches that I’ve ever been around … he does a phenomenal job,” Pruitt said. “He’s improving as a play-caller. Does a really nice job with that. He commands attention. He does a great job coaching the guys up on the sideline …it’s fun being around (the defensive staff).”
And with Thompson back and playing well, Pruitt and Ansley both should keep enjoying their jobs.
“It’s been huge,” freshman linebacker Henry To’o To’o said. “Bryce is a big piece to our defense and you guys (saw) it tonight.
“Bryce is making the best of every opportunity he gets out there.”