No. 15 Vols benefit from Abernathy's big plays on defense
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee safety Micah Abernathy stopped playing offense once he arrived in college, but the former high school running back continues finding ways to get the ball in his hands.
Abernathy clinched Tennessee's season-opening overtime victory over Appalachian State by breaking up a fourth-down pass into the end zone. He followed that up by setting a school single-game record last week with three fumble recoveries in a 45-24 triumph over Virginia Tech .
The sophomore from Atlanta said he couldn't remember ever having that many takeaways in a single game.
''Maybe in Little League or something like that,'' Abernathy quipped.
Abernathy's emergence doesn't surprise coaches and teammates, who raved about him throughout the preseason for his consistency. His performance against Virginia Tech makes Abernathy the reigning Southeastern Conference defensive player of the week heading into the 15th-ranked Volunteers' Saturday afternoon game with Ohio (1-1).
''You know what you're getting with Micah every single day,'' Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. ''He has great instincts for the football. He's around the football. He's really helping us win football games right now. He's also turning into one of our leaders in the back end of our defense.''
Tennessee (2-0) had to break in two new starters at safety following the graduations of Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil, who combined for 89 career starts. The development of Abernathy and junior Todd Kelly Jr. has turned a potential weakness into a strength.
''I like steady players and he's been very, very steady,'' defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. ''He and TK have both been pretty steady back there and have done a good job. That's really what's separated them at the safety position. They're composed. They communicate well. I think the best is yet to come from Micah.''
The mentality that has made Abernathy an effective defensive player was evident even as he rushed for over 1,500 yards while helping Greater Atlanta Christian reach a state final his senior year in high school.
Abernathy, the grandson of former civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy Sr., played both running back and cornerback in high school. His high school coach said Abernathy preferred playing defense.
''He was pretty special carrying the ball, but we knew he'd be a DB at the next level,'' Greater Atlanta Christian coach Tim Hardy said. ''That's his heart and his passion. When I see him making those big plays Saturday night ... it doesn't shock me at all because he's always a guy to make a big play at a big moment when people needed him to do that.''
Abernathy's first takeaway against Virginia Tech turned the game around. Virginia Tech led 14-0 when Abernathy recovered a fumble at the Hokies' 5-yard line. The Vols reached the end zone on the next play to start a run of 31 straight Tennessee points.
He also recovered two fourth-quarter fumbles, one of which led to a Tennessee touchdown.
Jeff Williams, the NCAA associate director for media coordination and statistics, said Abernathy is the fourth player since 2014 to recover three fumbles in a single game. The others were Georgia State's Bobby Baker last season and North Carolina's Dominique Green and Wake Forest's Tylor Harris in 2014.
''Coming into the season, I wanted to contribute as a starter and just do my best to help my teammates out,'' Abernathy said. ''I feel like I've done that so far.''
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