Can Tennessee's Defense Withstand Another Scheme Change?

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Can Tennessee's Defense Withstand Another Scheme Change?
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
Tennessee LB A.J. Johnson

To say that the last five seasons at Tennessee have been tumultuous would be an understatement. 

Since falling to eventual BCS National Champion LSU 21-14 in the 2007 SEC Championship Game and beating Wisconsin 21-17 in the 2008 Outback Bowl, the Vols have had four head coaches, played in only two bowl games and been non-existant in the battle for the SEC East title.

Job No. 1 for first-year head coach Butch Jones is to provide something that Vol Nation has been craving for a half-decade.

USA TODAY Sports
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones

Stability.

Only don't tell that to the defense, because it doesn't have it right now—and that's a good thing.

Jones and first-year defensive coordinator John Jancek are installing a 4-3 defense this spring, after former defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri utilized a 3-4 scheme in his one and only season on Rocky Top in 2012.

A third scheme change in three years on defense isn't ideal, but considering the players on Tennessee's roster, it's the right move.

"I think the 4-3 benefits me a lot," said defensive lineman Maurice Couch last week. "It helps the pass rushing game. Last year I felt slow on the ball playing the 3-4, I feel like we were defending the run more than anything. But I am excited to be back in the 4-3."

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Tennessee DL Maurice Couch (44)

As he should be.

The move to the 4-3 will allow Couch (who's being held out of contact drills this spring according to Nooga.com) and fellow defensive tackle Daniel McCullers to take a more active role in the defense, rather than taking up blocks and letting the linebackers do the work—as was the case in the 3-4.

It also allows defensive end-turned-linebacker Jacques Smith to drop back down to defensive end—a more natural fit for the 6'2", 244-pounder.

"It's a great learning step for me going back," Smith told the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press. "You see the differences of the defense and how the gaps fit and the responsibilities. It's all a similar concept."

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A.J. Johnson has proven to be a legitimate stud in his two seasons in Knoxville, playing both outside and inside linebacker over the past two seasons. Curt Maggitt will miss spring practice, but can play either outside linebacker or drop down and play on the defensive line. Former safety Brent Brewer is also listed as a linebacker on Tennessee's official roster, and will likely play on the outside.

Toss in veteran defensive backs Justin Coleman, Byron Moore and Brian Randolph (once he recovers from ACL surgery), and Tennessee has the pieces in place to rebuild the defense in a hurry.

That's a lot of talent—talent that has yet to translate to success.

But let's not treat Tennessee's switch back to the 4-3 as a scheme change, because it's really not. It's more like "hitting the reset button" for Jones and Jancek.

That bodes well for Vol Nation, because the last time the Vols ran a 4-3 in 2011, they gave up 130.8 yards per game fewer than they did running the 3-4 last season.

That may not get the Vols back into division-title contention, but it'd be a nice start.

 

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