You couldn't help but notice a defensive presence Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium. And you could notice it without following the play-by-play of Tennessee's spring scrimmage.
Mike Tomlin, the coach of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, addressed the UT team before the scrimmage. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth observed the scrimmage from the sideline.
UT defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and Tomlin once coached together at Tampa Bay, where Tomlin won the first of his two Super Bowl rings. Kiffin hadn't met Haynesworth, a former Vol who recently signed a seven-year, $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins.
"I went over and introduced myself," Kiffin said. "I wanted to see if he had a couple of years (of eligibility) left. But I don't know if we could afford him."
None of UT's defensive linemen remind you of Haynesworth, who teamed with John Henderson to anchor the UT defense in 2001. But UT's front four is coming together nicely under new coach Lane Kiffin, and the entire defense is making strides.
Last season, you didn't have to see the number to identify the tackler on a highlight-size hit. The noisiest hits were invariably delivered by All-American strong safety Eric Berry.
A ball carrier doesn't have to make it to the secondary this spring before encountering a head-turning collision. He just has to make it to Chris Walker, who is starting to look like an All-SEC defensive end. With Ben Martin on the other side, and Dan Williams and converted end Wes Brown manning the tackle positions, the revamped front line is making progress. Depth is still an issue, but 6-foot-4, 312-pound true freshman Montori Hughes has gotten everyone's attention. Hughes, a second-team defensive tackle, turned in another noteworthy performance in the scrimmage.
"He's a young guy, 18 years old, who's a force at defensive tackle," Monte Kiffin said. "He's just going to get better and better. It's all new to him, but he's got a great attitude."
UT's defense wasn't dominant in Saturday's scrimmage, and that's just as well for UT fans. After all, given last year's national ranking of No. 115 in total offense, the other side of the ball is a greater concern. UT's offensive line also had its moments, punching holes in the defense and clearing the way for young running backs Tauren Poole and Toney Williams. The competitive balance between the lines clearly has made for a more interesting spring.
"I didn't think we were good enough in (defending) the run game," Monte Kiffin said. "Early, they couldn't run the ball that well, but they stuck with it. We have a good running game."
Like most running games, UT's functions best when its ballcarriers hold on to the ball. That wasn't always the case in the scrimmage. If you want to take an optimistic slant on the four fumbles, credit a defense that is responding to the new staff's obsession with creating turnovers.
"Every day in practice, we work at stripping the ball and creating turnovers," Brown said. "We're really focusing on that. When you practice like that, it becomes second nature."
And when you practice like that, maybe you can recover more than three fumbles in a season.
UT ranked third nationally in total defense last season. But it also ranked 117th in fumbles recovered.
Remember what an impact Berry's seven interceptions had last season? Imagine if the rest of the defense could have recovered that many fumbles.
Then, maybe the Vols could have short-circuited some of those game-changing drives that figured so prominently in a 5-7 season. In UT's seven losses, opponents had 13 scoring drives of 65 yards or longer.
There's no great strategy in forcing fumbles. It's more about emphasis and effort.
"If you don't hustle and you don't hit, you'll never get turnovers," Monte Kiffin said. "We're gonna hustle and we're gonna hit."
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.