While much of the focus during Tennessee's tumultuous offseason and spring practice has been focused on the offense, the Vols' defense has gone through some changes as well. Gone are Thorpe Award winner Eric Berry, first round selection Dan Williams, team leader Rico McCoy, and legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. What's left for the Big Orange is a group of young men and a young defensive coordinator who can carry the great Tennessee defensive tradition into a new era. It all begins with the man in charge of the defense, Justin Wilcox.
The 33 year-old Wilcox spent the last four seasons as Boise State's defensive coordinator. In those four seasons the Broncos led the Western Athletic Conference in total defense and scoring defense each year. Yes, Boise State is in the WAC where defense is mostly an afterthought. However, Boise State did not go 14-0 last year by putting up basketball numbers.
Last year the Broncos finished 14th nationally in total defense and third in turnovers gained. And that's not just against the WAC. TCU averaged 51 points in the last four games of an unbeaten regular season. It scored 10 in a seven-point loss to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. Oregon scored 42 or more points in five consecutive Pac-10 games. It scored eight in the season opener against Boise State.
Wilcox will bring a high risk/high reward defense to Big Orange Country. Something that is much different than Kiffin's famous "Tampa 2" defense. In the "Tampa 2" the defense played zone and did a great job at limiting big plays but it can limit a defense's chances on interceptions and sacks. With the multiple fronts and different schemes Wilcox's system brings, look for Tennessee to be a more opportunistic defense with more interceptions and sacks. However, this also leaves Tennessee susceptible to big plays. Despite this, the Tennessee defense will have to produce big plays on defense to give the offense a short field to work with this season.
So Tennessee fans have a good idea of what Wilcox can bring to the table, but what kind of talent do the Vols have this season?
On the defensive line Tennessee does have some playmakers at end with Ben Martin and Chris Walker. They are great pass rushers who have some solid speed coming around the end. Walker, listed at 241 pounds reminds many of the Indianapolis Colts great rusher Dwight Freeney when he played at Syracuse. At tackle the Vols are a little thin. Montori Hughes will have to live up to his potential this season. Wilcox has been tinkering with different schemes and during spring practice even lined up the 317 pound Hughes off the line so he could get a head of steam to rush the passer.
At linebacker the Vols have many players with game experience, mostly because they were all injured at one point or another last year. At the end of spring it looks like Nick Reveiz, Savion Frazier, and LaMarcus Thompson to be the starting three, but expect Greg King and Herman Lathers to get plenty of playing time as well. Under the radar is redshirt freshman Jerod Askew who can make an impact. With the depth at linebacker at a thin defensive line, look for Wilcox to tinker with a 3-4 scheme this season.
In the Tennessee secondary, when someone like Eric Berry leaves there is an obvious void to fill. This Tennessee group is looking to fill that void in a big way. Sophomore safety Janzen Jackson has already received Eric Berry hype after a great freshman season, despite losing four games due to legal issues. Darren Myles Jr., Eric Gordon, and Art Evans bring big play potential to the secondary.
In 2008 Tennessee was third in total defense, and last season the Vols dropped to 22nd. If Tennessee can get over depth issues on the defensive line, and the secondary can fill the void left by Eric Berry and Dennis Rogan, the Vols can have a great defense. Because of the schemes that Wilcox employs the success of this defense might not show up in yards per game. Instead success will be measured in sacks and turnovers. This season, the Tennessee defense is going to have to lead the way until the offense has a chance to gel and score some points.
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