Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
After calling Tennessee home for more than 20 years, John Chavis has never felt more at home than he does right now.
“This whole deal has been a breath of fresh air. It really has,” said Chavis, who as LSU’s first-year defensive coordinator faces an old nemesis Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
Frankly, it’s a nemesis –- in a roundabout way –- that played a part in uprooting Chavis from his alma mater and rerouting him to LSU.
His former boss at Tennessee, Phillip Fulmer, couldn’t beat Florida and Urban Meyer and got the boot. So did Chavis despite finishing in the top three in the SEC in total defense nine of his 14 seasons as the Vols’ defensive coordinator.
So when LSU coach Les Miles went looking for the right guy to resuscitate a defense that woefully underachieved a year ago, it didn’t take him long to pick up the phone and call Chavis.
“I never thought I’d say this, and I don’t regret a moment I spent there, but I stayed (at Tennessee) too long,” said Chavis, who turned down multiple opportunities, college and pro, because of his love for Tennessee and his loyalty to Fulmer.
“I believe this with all my heart, but God had his hands all over this. I knew the right doors would open. I’d always looked at this place from afar with envy and knew these folks had a passion for football. It’s important to these people, and it’s been what I thought it would be.
“It was hard to say goodbye to a lot of good friends in Tennessee. That was the tough part, but it’s been wonderful here.”
If Chavis can figure out a way to slow down the Gators, it will only get better.
He’s the first to admit that LSU’s defense has sort of come along in spurts this season as the players have grown more comfortable with the scheme.
But the Tigers head into Saturday’s showdown coming off their most impressive defensive performance of the season. They held Georgia to 274 yards and two touchdowns in a 20-13 win, and through three quarters, the Bulldogs were held scoreless while managing just 161 yards.
“We’re getting better, and they’re starting to understand the scheme and cutting it loose and just playing,” said Chavis, whose attacking defenses were the backbone of some of Tennessee’s best teams.
It remains to be seen how much he’ll go after the Gators. His former team, Tennessee, rushed three and four most of the game, played a lot of zone coverage and was able to get pressure on Tim Tebow and keep him at bay.
Of course, nobody knows if it will be Tebow or backup John Brantley under center Saturday for the Gators. But, then, Chavis said it doesn’t really matter, because regardless of who’s back there, the key to slowing down Florida’s offense is slowing down the Gators’ running game.
They’re leading the country with an average of 307.5 rushing yards per game.
“If you can’t stop their run, they’ll mix it up on you with their speed and kill you,” Chavis said. “You’ve got to keep them from running the football.”
Chavis said he hopes for Tebow’s sake that he’s healthy enough to play. But that doesn’t mean Chavis ever looks forward to facing him.
“He’s just a guy that keeps the chains moving forward. That’s what makes him so good, his ability to get those yards when they need them,” Chavis said. “But even in the passing game, nobody I’ve coached against has made some of the throws he’s made under duress. I’m talking about scrambling and making side-armed throws when you think you’ve got him sacked. He does a tremendous job of that and never quits on a play.”
While Chavis has yet to beat Meyer in four tries, he’s had some success in holding the Gators well under their averages offensively.
Florida won 16-7 in 2005, 21-20 in 2006 and 30-6 last season. Chavis’ defense held the Gators to two offensive touchdowns and a season-low 243 yards a year ago. Nobody else held the Gators under 350 yards all season on their way to the national championship.
The 2007 game was the exception. The Vols had pulled within 28-20 on Eric Berry’s interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter, but the Gators poured it on from there and pinned a humiliating 59-20 beating on the Vols at the Swamp.
“What you’re always looking for is the win, but three of the four years we’ve played Urban, we’ve been very respectable on defense,” Chavis said. “That’s not what you’re looking for. You’re looking for the victory, but in three of those games, our defense played well enough to win.
“They gave us a shellacking (in 2007 ) when we were playing three freshmen, but I would have loved to have played them with that defense at the end of the year.”
It’s the same defense that held LSU to one offensive touchdown in the Tigers’ 21-14 victory over the Vols in the SEC Championship Game.
Miles has since said that the way Chavis’ defense played that night in Atlanta was one of the reasons Chavis was so high on Miles’ list when he went looking for somebody to head up his defense following last season.
“He has great experience and understands the opponents' scheme well," Miles said. "He's very disciplined, competitive and physical in nature. It's allowed our guys to play more confident.
“I think there's always been a culture of dominant defense at LSU. I think that John really comes along side that very comfortably."
That said, Chavis said his defense will have to take it to another level Saturday night … and he’s confident they can.
“We’ve got to be ready to match their intensity,” Chavis said. “If we play like we’ve grown and like we’ve progressed these last few weeks, it’s going to be exciting. I think we’ve gotten a little better each week and will need to be even better this week.”