Strange: It's OK to talk up defense during spring

Few steps ahead

I hope this makes it onto YouTube.

Dennis Rogan intercepted a Jonathan Crompton pass and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown Saturday in Tennessee's football scrimmage. But that's not the real highlight.

By the time Rogan passed midfield on his way to the north end zone, defensive coordinator John Chavis started swinging his arms and high-stepping down the sideline in Rogan's wake.

It was part drum major, part Tennessee walking horse (Clydesdale division).

Over on the other sideline, new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson wasn't doing any high-stepping.

UT's second spring scrimmage was judged a "royal butt-kicking" in the defense's favor by head coach Phillip Fulmer.

There were four interceptions, at least that many sacks and twice that many tackles for lost yardage. Hardly any missed tackles. Demetrice Morley even shot off the edge to block a field goal.

Pretty encouraging stuff for a unit that in 2007 was in the unaccustomed posture of getting torched on several occasions.

The obvious caveat, however, is that this is April. Was Saturday's defensive show of force a mere April Fool?

It's predictable that Tennessee's defense would be ahead of its offense this spring. The Vols are overhauling their offensive system under the leadership of newcomer Clawson. Furthermore, they're missing a four-year starter at quarterback.

With the spotlight on the biggest offensive transition in more than two decades, Chavis and his guys are working under the radar.

"I've never cared for attention,'' Chavis said. "I like it fine this way.

"I'm having fun doing what I'm doing. I've got a great place to do it right here. I couldn't be in a better situation.''

But as Chavis and his veteran staff know better than anyone, all that matters is what the situation is in September, October and November.

Before September is out, Chavis will have matched wits and hits with Rick Neuheisel at UCLA, tried to keep Florida's Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin from running wild and gone toe to toe with Auburn.

One thing clear from the spring is that UT's secondary goes from being the weakest link to the strongest.

In Morley and Eric Berry, the Vols have a safety tandem that can make not only plays but highlight reels. Berry, the sensational freshman from 2007, could be All-America in 2008.

Asked how comfortable he felt with his first season behind him, Berry grinned and answered, "extremely comfortable. La-Z-Boy comfortable.''

Tennessee, however, isn't La-Z-Boy comfortable at any other defensive position. It's more an edge-of-your-seat proposition.

The best two linebackers in the stadium Saturday weren't in pads. Kevin Simon is a graduate assistant in the recruiting office. Jerod Mayo was just chilling as he awaits the NFL draft.

Rico McCoy, Ellix Wilson and Adam Meyers-White did a nice job Saturday. Nevin McKenzie, injured, was cheering from the sideline.

"I'm concerned with depth,'' Chavis said, "but we're good enough to play in the SEC, without any question.''

Steve Caldwell, who coaches the ends, is encouraged. If spring is any indication, Robert Ayers might finally realize his considerable potential as a senior.

"We've just got to keep him hungry,'' Caldwell said.

Chavis has challenged the front four to muster a pass rush without having to rely on blitzes. The jury is out but Chavis liked what he saw Saturday:

"Our four-man rush, to be honest, it's the best it's been in a while.''

So life has been good for the Tennessee defense this spring. Everybody, meanwhile, waits for the offense to come around That includes Chavis.

"It's going to get tougher and that's what we need,'' he said. "They're talented enough to where they're going to eliminate some mistakes and get it done.

"Understand, you're not going to come out here and see this every week.''

But for now, nothing wrong with a little high-stepping.

Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or strange2@knoxnews.com.

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Comments » 20

mojojojo writes:

YESSIREE!!!!!

gohawks1 writes:

Can anybody hook us up with a YouTube of Chavis on the sidelines doing the highstep? Gotta see that one.....

alfrizzle097 writes:

Secondary is looking good. It would just be nice to get some coverage sacks and pressure interceptions in the same season. Been a while since there has been a good front and back four.

Silent_Fulmer writes:

yawn, our Defense is getting reps against what will surely be one of the worst offenses in the SEC this year. Cue the Fulmer speach that Cal's i mean UCLA's speed suprised us a little bit.

givehim6 writes:

Glad the defence is shining! I'm hoping the line is putting a rush on crompton to make some bad reads. And this just means the offence in still just working out the new plays. Still got till fall to work it out. GO VOLS!

hglover40#234154 writes:

KeepBrucePearl - FU

T0MMYJACK writes:

"KeepBrucePearl"? Doesn't look as if any team is going to offer to take him away!

Wonder if Louisville's speed surprised coach Pearl? With the whippin' his team took in that game, the b-ball Vols couldn't end up regarded any better than 15th best in the nation. And in a year that the SEC was decidedly down in the sport.

It seems that high RPI's and regular-season championships don't mean much if your players give up, like the b-ballers seemed to do after winning in Memphissippi. I've heard many naysayers claim, in the case of the football team, that a lack of enthusiasm equals a lack of coaching. I've read "the usual suspects' ", over and over, claiming that the football coach didn't "coach 'em up" (that phrase is exceeded in stupidity only by those who actually believe it). Does the same standard not apply to the basketball coach?

The football Vols, on the other hand, finished with a #12 ranking. And did that having played a conference schedule that included the #1 and #2 teams in the nation. Finished strong, in the best college football conference in the land.

Don't fall prey to thinking that good sound bites and orange body paint are going to bring any team a national championship. Hopefully, in the latter part of the 2009 season, the basketball Vols won't wilt like spoiled lettuce, as they did in years 1 and 3 of the current leadership.

pdhuff#552644 writes:

Chavis - "Our four man rush, to be HONEST, its the best its been in a while".

Meaning????

Did he just say, "How long is a piece of string"?

Stay tuned.

Cherokee writes:

TOMMYJACK, Bruce Pearl has done an awesome job at UT and the season we just had in basketball beats anything the Vol football team has done since the NC in '98. 31-5 with a conference championship is good no matter how you want to spin the final result. And I would also disagree that we aren't any better than 15th in the country. We were ranked #5 or 6 at the start of the tournament. A loss to a strong Louisville team doesn't suddenly erase all that was accomplished this year.

If people are making snide comments about Fulmer, that is no reason to turn right around and do the same thing to Pearl.

99gator writes:

right now, that defense is going up against an offense that doesn't know what it's doing yet.

they better be dominating the spring. i would be far more concerned if the offense looked great and the defense was suspect in the spring considering the circumstances.

it's hard to come to any conclusions considering the offensive guys literally do not know what they are doing yet.

Cherokee writes:

99gator, I agree with you 100%. Every year, from every team, fans listen to talk about how one unit or another is looking and some folks start getting too excited or too concerned. There are so many variables to spring performance (starters missing, backups getting more reps to develop depth, limitations in offensive or defensive packages allowed, etc.) that evaluating how things are looking takes a lot more skill than Bubba J. Fan reading a scrimmage stat sheet.

ULTIMATEVOLUNTEER writes:

FINALLY we get a commitment from a Rivals 100 top player in Wr Je'ron Stokes! I don't know why kns or govols hasn't reported this.

TommyJack writes:

Cherokee: Exactly right

invisiblekid writes:

Think I'll set back and be content with the job Pearl did this year and hoping that Fulmer and his crew can get us that extra win that makes us SEC champions this year. It's a shame that some folk on here constantly try to compare apples and oranges in football and basketball. It's two different sports, two different coaches wth two distinct styles that are at different points in their respective careers. Fulmer didn't win any championships overnight and it's unfair to expect Pearl to do the same.

Anyway, I look at the Spring practice kind of like a pendulum. One practice you want to see it swing torward the offense, the next practice the defense. I know it doesn't mean much now, but it's good to see the defense forcing turnovers, tackling well, and getting to the QB. The next practice though, I will tend to be worried if Crompton throws 3 interceptions again.

pdhuff#552644 writes:

Most intrasquad practices aren't spent trying to kill each other. But vs Bama or Fla or Ga, there should not be any "turning the other cheek", upper or lower......

volgrog#210164 writes:

I'm sure the offense will mature in time, but I am worried that we will have an offensive problem this year. Changing systems is always tough and usually takes the better part of a year to get installed. It always seems like teams that change systems struggle early in the year following the change. In this case, that means UCLA, Florida, and Auburn. I hope I'm wrong.

waterskier3#226480 writes:

no worry three more years of fulmer regardless of how they start.... we need to start a website doing a countdown to his record to beat neyland.... OMG!!!! why did hamilton ever say that???? now every loss means that much longer with fulmer and slade and chavis....

on the positive side at least he's not trying to beat bowden or coach pa for total wins........

its not going to be the offense that cost us it will be the defense if they do not improve we're toast. the offense will need a few games to get going.

richvol writes:

Teams have won the SEC with what some people would consider a subpar offense. They had a dominate defense however and this gives me hope.

cjraney writes:

Glad to find out Kevin Simon is on campus as a Grad Assistant. Kid caught a lot of bad breaks on the field, and in life, but never quit working hard and giving his all for Tennessee. Glad to have you back Kevin.

hsdoss writes:

I hope you are satisfied.

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