It’s never just one thing when you’re as woeful as Tennessee was on defense last season.
The Vols allowed 37 or more points in eight games and finished 107th nationally in total defense, which is a big reason why Butch Jones is in Knoxville and will take his shot at resurrecting Tennessee’s program. He’s the Vols’ fourth head coach in the past six years, and if he’s going to be around longer than his predecessors, the first order of business will be fixing the defense.
Tennessee is shifting to a base 4-3 under new defensive coordinator John Jancek. The Vols have been poor at pressuring the quarterback each of the past two seasons, and they’ve also struggled to cover people in the secondary.
That’s a scary combination, but Jones said improving on defense starts with wreaking more havoc up front. Tennessee finished with an SEC-low 17 sacks last season, and was next-to-last in the SEC with 16 sacks in 2011.
“Playing great defense starts up front with being able to stop the run and impact the quarterback,” Jones said. “That’s where we have to make great strides.
“We certainly have to be disciplined in the secondary and not give up big plays and be fundamentally sound. We have to improve our speed across the board and our overall consistency. But you set the tone up front.”
Finding a consistent finisher off the edge will be critical, and the Tennessee coaches have high hopes for redshirt freshman LaTroy Lewis, who’s now pushing 250 pounds and recovered from the knee injury he suffered playing pick-up basketball last August.
Lewis will line up at rush end in the Vols’ new scheme after working as an outside linebacker last preseason in a 3-4 set.
“Last year, I was a little light to even play (outside linebacker),” Lewis said. “This year, I’m more comfortable with putting my hand on the ground.”
The Vols’ secondary should also benefit in 2013 thanks to a couple of additions. Safety Brian Randolph was Tennessee’s best defensive back a year ago until he tore his ACL in the Florida game and was lost for the season. He’s back this spring, and the Vols added junior college cornerback Riyahd Jones, who is also going through spring practice.
“Our kids have been willing and done everything and anything we’ve asked,” Jones said. “Make no mistake. We have a lot of work to do. We have to improve greatly up front defensively, whether it’s applying pressure or stopping the run.
“We’ll take it one day at a time and work to be a champion one day at a time.”