How Memphis football made creating takeaways a top priority for the defense

xavier cullen tried to describe what it was like to have defensive coordinator Matt Barnes on the sidelines. But words weren’t enough to Memphis linebacker. He needed sound effects.

Cullens then mimicked the loud roar sound of a motorcycle revving its gears to go faster. His teammate Jaylon Allen, seated nearby, went further shouting “Yaaaaaah!”

“If you’re feeling lazy, he’ll be there to cheer you up,” Cullens said Saturday after the Tigers game. 44-34 win over North Texas. “He lives his life on the red line.”

It’s no surprise that Barnes on the sidelines coincided with Memphis (3-1) upping their takeout numbers. Since starting against the Navy on Sept. 10, the Tigers have recorded four interceptions and recovered three fumbles. They have nine takeaways in four games, a tally they reached in their 10th game last season.

They got three takeaways on Saturday with Cullens’ interception return score and fumble recovery. Jaylon Allen started things off with a 39-yard interception return touchdown.

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It was not a perfect defensive game. Memphis hasn’t stopped teams from running it yet, and North Texas (2-3) took advantage with a season-high 371 passing yards. But if the Tigers balance that with takeout, that’s an acceptable compromise for now.

“If we’re going to be one of the best defenses, turnovers are going to be the only way to get to where we want to be,” Cullens said.

It’s an approach the players have taken this offseason. Barnes said recently that during pre-season training he noticed Cullens and Quindell Johnson leading the entire defense into the indoor training center to do home runs – a series of drills where players practice to remove the ball or get interceptions.

Memphis Tigers defensive lineman Jaylon Allen (22), defensive lineman Zy Brockington (0) and defensive lineman Cam'Ron Jackson (10) celebrate during a Memphis Tigers game against North Texas Mean Green on Saturday, September 24, 2022, at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in Memphis.  Memphis beat North Texas 44-34.

Barnes was thrilled that it was a player-led approach, and he’s happier that it translated into games.

“They’re very proud of it,” Barnes said. “Drills help with technique, but ultimately it’s a point of emphasis that our players have brought.”

In return, Barnes endeared himself to his players with his fiery personality. They loved having him on the sidelines — something Barnes did last season as the interim defensive coordinator at Ohio State. It didn’t just get them excited, it allows for quicker corrections so players can adapt faster on the pitch.

“He’s a defensive backs coach, so he mostly talks to the DBs, but sometimes he checks the whole defense,” Allen said. “I like how we can see him immediately. He’s coming off the boards. He’s proving us right.

Doing well is what Memphis needed after forcing just 15 takeouts last season. When the Tigers return to AAC play hosting Temple this week (11 a.m. ESPNU), there will be games where the defense needs to step up if the offense struggles like Saturday.

It’s good to talk about emphasizing takeout or hearing players make it a priority. But it’s better when it appears in games. And so far, the Tigers have done it.

“It’s satisfying, but we want to do it more than once,” Cullens said of the multiple interception touchdowns. “If we do it twice, it would be even more satisfying. I don’t want to give the impression that we were lucky.

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