KNOXVILLE -- With the introduction of a new coaching staff to Rocky Top comes a new defensive scheme for the Vols and a new opportunity to make big plays in the backfield.
In 2012, the Vols recorded just 17 sacks, 98th in the country. In 2013, UT will be returning to a four man front, a change that many of the current Vols are excited for including defensive linemen Mo Couch and Daniel McCullers.
“I think the 4-3 benefits me a lot,” said Couch. “It helps the pass rushing game. Last year I felt slow on the ball playing the 3-4, I feel like we were defending the run more than anything. But I am excited to be back in the 4-3.”
McCullers echoed his linemate’s sentiments.
“Right now [the coaches] have me at three technique so that is more about penetration,” said McCullers. “The 3-4 was more like taking a block for the linebackers, now it is more about the chance to make plays in the backfield.”
The 4-3 formation feels like the right fit to Team 117.
“Everybody is more comfortable with the 4-3 so everyone is eager to get out there and play,” said defensive back Byron Moore. “It is simpler, you can just go out and play fast, and there aren’t too many checks. So we will just line up and play.”
This year there aren’t as many adjustments and we have a lot of young guys who are getting the playbook immediately,” continued Couch. “Up front Coach Strip teaches us a lot especially on the pass rushing game because that is where we were lacking at. He gives us a lot of freedom up front. And we like that.”
The Vols D Line has a great mentor in associate head coach and defensive line coach Steve Stripling.
‘Coach Strip,’ as he is usually referred to, has set out making sure his players have the basic techniques down starting with day one of practice.
His players are ready to go.
“We have been working with Coach Strip and working all the technique moves,” said McCullers. “He is the best D Line coach in the world and he has put a lot of guys in the league. We are going to work hard together at getting to the quarterback this year.”
DROPPING WEIGHT, MAKING PLAYS
Another change the Vols have made in the offseason is more of a physical transformation.
With the addition of new strength coach Dave Lawson to the weight room, you might be seeing a more slimmed down and toned up Tennessee team in 2013.
The offensive line alone has lost an average of 10 pounds, and that includes rising junior Antonio Richardson.
“I came into the year at 336 and now I am at 326 so I am feeling pretty good,” said Richardson. “I feel a lot of pressure taken off my knee now; I can feel the 10 pound difference.”
On the defensive line, big man Daniel McCullers has cut his weight down to about 355 pounds, a weight he hasn’t seen since his freshman year of high school.
“Last year I could move, but not the way that I wanted to,” said McCullers. “This offseason we trained hard and worked and I got in better shape; I’m down to 355 and can move a lot quicker.”
“I feel better, a lot better,” continued McCullers. “Working with Coach Lawson and the whole staff, it is the best staff that I have been around conditioning wise, they will get you ready and I am ready for the season.”
The lower weight will bode well for the Vols during spring practice because, as they have already realized, things will be moving quickly.
“Everything we do is quick,” said defensive lineman Daniel Hood. “Every time the horn blows we run, there is no dogging it in between, there is no loafing and if you do there are consequences for it.”
Ultimately the fast pace is preparing the Vols to play a full 60 minutes strong come the fall.
Last year, in the fourth quarter I kind of burned out a little,” said McCullers, “I am better shape now and ready to go.”
“I think [this pace] is going to be better for us,” said Hood. “When we get to the fourth quarter, we are not going to be the team that comes just that short in the fourth quarter; we are going to be the team that makes the play to win the game.”
THE NEWEST MEMBER OF THE VOL FAMILY
The newest member of the Vol family, Robert Gillespie, comes to Tennessee with a slew of SEC experience.
A native of Hattiesburg, Miss., Gillespie grew up in SEC country, gained SEC playing experience at Florida, and began his coaching career at SEC foe South Carolina.
Gillespie joins the Vols from Big 12 West Virginia where he spent the previous two seasons and he has already made an impression on his running backs.
“Coach Gillespie is no joke, he is real,” said rising senior Rajion Neal. “He wants it his way, right now, to the T, but at the end of the day it makes a big difference.”
Gillespie took part in his first practice with the Vols in just his first week on campus, and during that time has already gotten to know his running back group.
“These guys have done a great job coming by, spending time with me, getting to know me, and they have been very receptive in meeting rooms,” said Gillespie. “Out there on the field I'll learn some more things about them, but I will not truly learn everything there is to know about these guys until we put the pads on. You learn about who your running back is when he puts his pads on."
Like the rest of the Vols coaching staff, Gillespie has made it clear that Team 117 is a family.
“It really is like a family,” said Neal. “From the whole time [the staff] has been here, we have interacted and sat down and talked with them. It is cool getting to know them as quick as we did. [Coach Jones] wants everybody to know each other and mix and mingle.”
“[Coach Gillespie] let us know that the game that we play and what we do is a big sacrifice,” said Neal. “We all take that personal, because at the end of the day we know through each other we all prosper. We all take it personal and know what we mean to each other.”
Head Coach Butch Jones
(On Brent Brewer)
“I think he is a work in practice just like everybody. It has been 105 days since we have played football. He has bought in. He has done a great job, he is bringing leadership, he is taking coaching. He is extremely explosive, he is quick, he has gotten strong in the weight room, so I have been really pleased with his efforts.”
(On Brewer’s switch to LB)
“This is a speed league but also you have to be able to stop the run. He has improved his strength levels which is great but again he adds more athleticism to our defense.”
(On LaTroy Lewis)
“It is early but we see a level of athleticism. We see an element of speed, the ability to rush the passer. He has to continue to improve his first three steps off the football. He has to be able to help us gain an edge presence to our defense.”
(On Dan McCullers)
“He is going to be critical. The big thing is football endurance. Can he stay in the game and endure 7, 8, 9, play drives in the way we want him to perform, running towards the football and a level of mental toughness. He is kind of quiet, I call him the big grizz. He does a great job, he is taking coaching. I think his overall endurance level, the ability to play with controlled recklessness upfront, maintaining his gap rushing the passer and being able to play for extended number of plays in a series.”
Defensive Lineman Mo Couch
(On last year’s defense and its effect on this season)
“We are hungry for real. Last year, we had the worst defense in Tennessee history. We have a lot of guys that are eager and very hungry, we are just going to be level headed and work all through spring ball, summer workouts and get ready to compete for the fall.”
Defensive Lineman Daniel Hood
(On defensive coordinator John Jancek)
“I like Coach Jancek a lot, he has made things a lot simpler for us so we can know what we are doing and play fast. It has been good so far.”
(On the defense playing with a chip on their shoulders)
“After how bad we were last year, the whole defense is out there playing with a chip on our shoulder.”
Defensive Lineman Jacques Smith
(On defensive coordinator John Jancek)
“Coach Jancek is a great coach and we are happy to have him. Going back to the 4-3 it is very simple, we have done it before so it’s not something we haven’t seen but we are getting it very well.”
(On playing hard)
“There is so much animosity that is built up in this team and I am sure you will see it throughout the spring.”
(On the move to the defensive line)
“Defensive End is a natural position for me and I played it before, especially in this scheme. It is something that I am used to.”
(On his new position)
“I like the similarities between their defense and Justin Wilcox’s defense. It is very similar. I am playing the Leo position that is like the D End, JACK backer, it is all the same. My hands are just in the dirt more.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)