KNOXVILLE — Dee Williams is listed as a senior defensive back in the Tennessee media guide, but special teams have been his specialty since transferring before last season from East Central (Mississippi) Community College.
The 5-foot-11, 194-pounder from Forsyth, Georgia, has struggled to get on the field in the secondary and warmed up with the receivers before Saturday's 20-13 win over Texas A&M. Yet Williams may have made the best back-to-back plays of Tennessee's 5-1 season that contains a 2-1 mark in Southeastern Conference play.
"It can get little bit frustrating, but the best thing to do is always stay ready," Williams said, "because you never know when it's your time to make that play that the team needs."
Midway through the third quarter and with the Aggies leading 10-7, Vols punter Jackson Ross placed a kick that was headed for the end zone before being downed by Williams at the 1-yard line. After the Aggies produced three plays that netted zero yards, they had to punt from the back of their end zone.
Williams took in Nik Constantinou's punt in the middle of the field and quickly broke free over the right side for a 39-yard touchdown that resulted in Neyland Stadium's loudest moment of the day.
"Dee and that punt return changed the game," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said. "Man, it was awesome to see those guys make the play that makes a difference in the game. You've got 10 guys competing their butts off to get him in the end zone. It was a huge, momentum-swing play.
"We had gotten the ball offensively on the plus side of it but hadn't gotten anything out of it in the last couple of drives, so it was a huge turning point."
There was no disagreement from Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, who said, "It was critical in the game. It put them up."
The 39-yard score was the only return for Williams, who is hoping to make a mark on offense at some point, too.
"When that time comes, I'm going to be ready for it," he said.
Tennessee won Saturday despite quarterback Joe Milton III throwing for just 100 yards.
The sixth-year senior completed 11 of 22 passes and threw an interception in the end zone during the first minute of the fourth quarter.
"The decision in the red zone — you just can't make that one," Heupel said. "That was a critical error by him, and sometimes that happens at quarterback."
Milton did have a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jacob Warren late in the first quarter, his 10th consecutive game with at least one touchdown pass.
Red zone woes
The Vols ventured past Texas A&M's 20-yard line five times Saturday but only got one touchdown and two field goals out of those trips.
"We just absolutely crushed ourselves in that part of the field," Heupel said. "We've got to get better there, and there were a lot of variables tonight. There was the flow of the game and the wind and who you're seeing on the other side of the football. It didn't look like I made a lot of the right decisions tonight for the most part in those critical situations.
"I say that because we didn't execute in some of those."
Sophomore edge rusher James Pearce Jr. added to his sensational season for the Vols with three tackles, two tackles for loss and a whopping five quarterback hurries.
"James is a great football player, but he's not anywhere where he's going to be," Heupel said. "He's going to continue to get better, but he's starting to mature and be the same competitor. He's relentless every single rep, but it's all of those guys together. It's not just one guy that you can slide or chip.
"It's all of those guys up front operating and functioning as one. If it's just one, you can do things from a protection standpoint to try to limit a guy. He had a great game, but it looked like everybody in there stepped up and competed extremely hard tonight."
Pearce's teammates didn't hide in their marveling.
"I can't say enough about James," senior linebacker Aaron Beasley said. "He's a different guy, and his play speaks for itself."
Said junior running back Jaylen Wright: "We've been dealing with him all summer. He's a dog."
Odds and ends
Redshirt freshman receiver Chas Nimrod earned his first career start in absence of the injured Bru McCoy and had four catches for 31 yards. ... Tennessee is 10-0 under Heupel wearing orange jerseys and white pants. ... Offensive guard Andrej Karic, defensive tackle Omarr Norman-Lott, linebacker Keenan Pili and defensive back Christian Charles were the four Vols who were announced as inactive. ... The Vols had been 0-9 under Heupel during games in which they trailed at halftime.
Contact David Paschall at [email protected].