To say that Tennessee struggled on defense last year would be an understatement.
The Vols were flat out dreadful.
They finished last in the SEC in total defense after giving up 471.3 yards per game—50.8 yards per game more than 13th place Auburn, and last in scoring defense after giving up 35.7 points per game.
But gone is former head coach Derek Dooley, former defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and a 3-4 scheme that never really seemed to fit on Rocky Top.
New head coach Butch Jones and defensive coordinator John Jancek have brought back the 4-3 this year, and that bodes well for many players on Tennessee's defense—most of whom were recruited for that system.
Topping that list is 6'2", 244-pound senior defensive end Jacques Smith. After notching 33 tackles, seven tackles for loss and two sacks last season at linebacker in the 3-4, Smith will drop back down to defensive end—where he spent the first two seasons of his Vol career.
In 2011 at defensive end, he started eight games and had 35 tackles, 7.5 of which went for a loss. It's a more natural position for Smith. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Smith will still have some linebacker responsibilities in the hybrid "Leo" role, but will have his hand in the dirt more times than not.
For Smith, the experience of switching systems will pay dividends during his senior year.
"It's a great learning step for me going back," he told the Times Free Press before spring break. "You see the differences of the defense and how the gaps fit and the responsibilities. It's all a similar concept."
It isn't just the on-the-field experience that will help. The experience Smith has gained from going through three scheme changes in three years will ease the transition. He's had to continue his football education process throughout his career jumping from system to system, so he's not going to be surprised by anything the new staff throws his way.
So how has he been progressing? According to defensive line coach Steve Stripling, very well.
"I will say this about Jacques, he has adapted quickly," said Stripling. "He was the player of the day in Tuesday's practice when we grade the film and reward a player. He has been especially quick to pick up the techniques, the checks, all of those things. His transition has been phenomenal. He has really stepped into it."
In his final season on Rocky Top, expect big things from Smith. He's being counted on to be that force off the edge, and with Daniel McCullers and Maurice Couch occupying attention in the interior of the line, Smith will have the chance to pin his ears back and go after the quarterback.
The former 4-star prospect in the 247Sports.com composite is quick off the ball, fast enough to be a threat as a pass-rusher, but isn't going to be pushed around in run defense. The Vols' defense is making it a point to get after the quarterback, and Smith is the perfect weapon for that.
Former LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo earned second-team All-SEC honors in 2012 playing at 6'5", 240 pounds, and Smith has similar attributes
Smith hasn't lived up to his recruiting hype during his career in Knoxville. Coaching and scheme changes certainly have contributed to that, but time is running out.
Now that he's in a system that he's more familiar and better-suited for, he'll live up to the hype in 2013 and become a major contributor on Tennessee's revitalized defense.
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