Tennessee Football 2011: 10 Ways DC Justin Wilcox Will Improve the Defense
Many are impatient, including myself, for what awaits Tennessee's defense.
Justin Wilcox has been caught in a bit of a tornado-like success in his short-lived college tenure. Rising from the ranks as a graduate assistant at Boise State to the LB coach at UCLA, he was quickly recognized for his ability to coach up players.
He turned UCLA's LB squad into All PAC-10 players then got the call to return to Boise State. Back at home, Wilcox helped turn the Broncos defensive squad into a defensive wrecking ball, where he utilized that good old swarm-to-the-ball philosophy to amass a 49-4 record over four seasons.
At the end of the last season, there were a few grumbles that wondered whether he could bring that championship flavor to Tennessee. If you are one of those doubters, then maybe after reading this, you will grumble a little less.
Defensive Line Will Bounce Harder
Hit the offensive line harder with the front four; if the run is in place, it forces the back to the corners, where the LB and CB will be waiting.
It's really such a simple thing, it doesn't seem worth mentioning. However, last season it seemed as though the line was out of sync and too worried about getting sacks.
I think now that Lance Thompson has control, there will be a tighter discipline and the guys up front will finally start to click again. From this, you will see gang tackling at its finest.
Defensive Line Will Improve Pass Attack
Once that line starts bouncing harder, the pocket should start to fall in on itself. This should give the DL time to get their hands up before the QB gets set.
The QB will have less of a chance to key on open receivers, and it will give DE's time to sneak in and commit murder.
If the QB decides to get cute and sell his three-step drop, the line should collapse enough by then to open up sacking opportunities and then it's just a matter of wheeling out the gurney.
They will better identify the passing lanes and become better skilled at shooting the gap, because they will see that the blocking lanes are now open.
Linebackers Will Learn How to Defend the Passing Lanes
The LB squad might know how to do this, but you couldn't prove it from last season.
Last season, the passing lanes went largely undefended by the Tennessee LB's. Looking back on it, you could see the the corners had to work overtime because the LB's were getting tricked routinely by the option.
This year LB coach Peter Sirmon will begin to to infuse...again the swarm, by pushing the LB's further into the passing lanes, which could spell huge numbers on the turnover.
Corners Get a Little Deeper
The swarm transformation is now complete.
Pushing the corners a little deeper will force receivers into the passing lanes, where the LB's will be waiting for them. This should re-direct them, forcing them out of the passing lanes where Corners will be waiting.
The concept is the receiver never has a chance to get open because by the time the play has been telegraphed, the LB can follow them out and virtually disrupt any kind of pass and the corners can jump for every ball.
Tennessee only covered this one out of every six possessions last season. This season should be night and day statistic-wise.
Everybody Follows the Ball
Swarm, swarm, swarm. I know you're tired of hearing it.
But the simplicity is what Wilcox is trying to teach. If everybody swarms to the ball, somebody will always be there to in case a TB squirms his way out, or if a receiver gets popped but doesn't go down.
If the defensive lineman is paying attention, he can use the momentum of his blocker to change direction and possibly catch the receiver before he finds his footing and breaks downfield.
The same goes for LB's who are close by, just looking for a reason to get mean, then poof...fumble.
He Will Build It Around His Best Guy
Malik Jackson is ready for the draft campaign.
Yes, yes, I know he's there to play for Tennessee, that's cool. But what I would rather see is him build up his own numbers because that means fewer yards on the offense.
Wilcox knows this, too. He will put Jackson back at DE and let him work his magic. The rest of the line will benefit greatly from Jackson's high numbers, because the offense will do their best to keep it away from him.
Double teams on the run? It won't matter if the rest of the team follows the game plan. There will be enough people there to cover the gap.
Well, what if they pass? That's won't matter, either, because the OL will be so worried about covering the gaps, that Magic Malik will sneak around the corner and hurry or sack the QB.
Oh man, everything sounds good on paper, right?
He Will Build It Around the Worst Guy
Sorry Melvin, since Goins is no longer on the team, I thought I would pick on him.
Let's see, where was I?
Oh yeah, build it around the weakest link. After the first quarter, the guys up in the box will start seeing where the penetration is the least vulnerable and start targeting that one player who just doesn't seem to get it.
This is about the same time the guys in the other box start licking their chops and sell it a little more, and before it's too late, they shut it down with a switch.
This is the part where the offense doesn't want to give up and they push on a fade route. That's when that weakest guy gives up position and blocks the blocker; in turn, he can interrupt the protection and the CB or the LB come in for a dental adjustment.
This is interception paradise. Jackson and Waggner did this twice last season, and it worked both times.
Linebackers Will Blitz More
Blitzing, really? Yes, really.
Coming with at least one LB will press deep protection into use and free up an open hole for that DE to sneak further.
It will also pressure the QB into a hurry, opening up the possibility of turnover either on the interception, or getting squeezed further in the backfield and possibly losing the possession while getting sacked.
Factor in that the LB is more mobile and quicker than most DL, and you get another body in the back pressing any rushers to sweep out and get tackled for a loss.
Either way it's a win, as long as the other LB covers the inside of both passing lanes and the safety plays shallow to cover deep threats.
Run 'Em 'Til They Puke
Conditioning is major weakness for the Vols.
Last season, both sides of the Tennessee team was completely out of gas by the time the second half started. The team was severely outmatched on the run; many times the camera would pan to the players just to see them trying to catch their breath.
In the second half against Oregon, the no-huddle offense was so exhausting that the Tennessee players had to routinely rest after each rep. At times, it looked like the entire team changed after each snap.
Again, the new strength and conditioning coach, Ron McKeefery will stretch out those orange lungs and give them the much needed stamina that Bennie Wylie couldn't provide.
If he's good enough for the Green Berets, he should do satisfactory for the Vols. And when September rolls around, you should a dramatically leaner defense.
I've done my best to hold off on the philosophical stuff, but it's true the defense needs to be told they're good.
For all the adversity that the Vol defense faced last year, they still did a remarkable job considering their depth. They out-tackled their opponents 944-826, out-intercepted 18-15, returned interceptions 294-197, and out-hurried QB's 44-33.
Still, they all they heard was the press (including myself) and the fans talk about all of their shortcomings and how shallow their depth was.
I remember Boise's defensive squad; even when they were losing, they never got distracted by the score and they played every play like it was for the BCS trophy.
Wilcox has room for improving here, but the defense can get the party started by winning their first three games, and yes, that includes Florida. After that, he just needs to keep patting them on the back.
Atta boy, atta boy!