Derek Dooley talks after practice Wednesday
Tennessee needs more productivity at both defensive end and tackle.
And the Vols are turning their roster inside-out to find it.
Guys on the interior are sliding to the outside and players that used to be on the edge are moving closer to the ball, giving the Vols consistently different looks up front throughout spring practice — and perhaps an option to continue shaking things up throughout the season this fall.
“Well, we’re just trying to find the best combination of players,” defensive line coach Lance Thompson said after practice Wednesday. “We’re very young, we’re a little undersized, so we’re just really trying to find the best combination of players.
“The first two weeks we tried one batch of things, and this last two weeks we’re going to try another.”
The Vols kicked that process off by giving Corey Miller some work at tackle and Marlon Walls some reps at end, which aren’t the positions they were generally expected to be playing when camp opened.
But versatility and cross-training have been among the leading themes for coordinator Justin Wilcox and the defensive staff since UT reported for its 15 workouts this spring, and it’s now clearly showing up on the line. And hardly anybody has been spared snaps at a position other than the one they normally might fill.
“Marlon will be moving inside-outside, Corey Miller the same way, Malik (Jackson) the same way, me the same way, everybody kind of has done it — except our big guys like Montori (Hughes) and Arthur Jeffery,” sophomore Jacques Smith said. “It just shows how everybody on our defensive line is athletic.
“I mean, there were times last year we’d have our tackles at end and our ends at tackle, then we would run stunts to get our ends outside and then the tackles would come pick for us inside. It’s really just like our defensive line as a whole, we’re really athletic and we’re really good defensive linemen that can play at all positions.”
Ideally, UT would figure out which one best suits each player, and it’s taking full advantage of some time to tinker and come up with a few answers.
Along the way the linemen stand to benefit from experience at other positions, absorbing the playbook from other angles and picking up a better understanding of the roles of the rest of the unit. And the coaches could get a boost by having more flexibility when they’re putting together a rotation.
“Marlon played inside some last year when we first got here, and we think he’s probably better suited to play outside,” Wilcox said. “But there might be a necessity where both he and Corey need to play inside for us.
“We’re trying to get both of those guys some work both inside and outside so you’re not stuck with the second defensive tackle, your next-best player is always in the game. So you’re teaching them how to play the position so if somebody ever goes down, the next guy is in — not necessarily the second player at that position.”
Clock Is Ticking: Derek Dooley didn’t necessarily need to remind his team about the importance of a four-minute offense to close out a game. The Vols surely won’t ever forget the games where it didn’t work a year ago.
“Last year we were 2-2 in four-minute (situations),” Dooley said. “We did a great job at Vanderbilt, we did a great job against Kentucky and we won the games.
“We didn’t get it done in the bowl game and we didn’t get it done at LSU, and it put our defense in a two-minute situation and we lost the games.”
The Vols dropped both of them in brutal, heart-breaking fashion thanks to bizarre finishes at the end of regulation with the defense on the field — scenarios which potentially could have been avoided by simply hanging onto the football.
“I told the team, we couldn’t have changed anything about last year, and if we had just executed the last two minutes of two games, we’re 8-5,” Dooley said. “So it was good to get that work in.”
Clean Slate: If Tyler Bray’s underwhelming scrimmage got him down, the sophomore quarterback has apparently hidden it well from his position coach.
And that ability to move on quickly from a rough patch might just be his best quality.
“The one thing we talk about is having a white sheet of paper after every play,” Darin Hinshaw said. “Forget what you did and get ready for the next play. Then take one play at a time.
“A lot of that mentality is him doing that, then we go back and watch the film and study what we did wrong. We did a lot of things wrong on Saturday, but we correct those things, we learn from those things and we move on.”
Austin Ward covers Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Vols_Beat and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/ward.