Willie Bohannon comments after practice - April 12, 2011
When he was in his early years at Southern Cal, Tennessee defensive tackle Malik Jackson was in a situation similar to what Willie Bohannon faced through most of the 2010 season.
Bogged down on the depth chart behind the likes of Clay Matthews Jr. and Everson Griffen, both of whom played in the NFL last season, Jackson succumbed to what he described as inevitable complacency.
“That’s real tough,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to keep working and fight through it and one day you’ll get your chance and when your chance comes you’ve got to be ready for it.”
Bohannon wasn’t exactly bogged down on the depth chart behind “beasts” like Matthews Jr. and Griffen, but he had a salty veteran in Chris Walker clogging his way toward significant playing time. After an ugly performance in September against UAB, Bohannon admitted that he convinced himself he could do no better than fill in as a second-teamer, and his performance suffered even more.
“It was like ‘Chris Walker is there and I know I’m second team,’ instead of pushing myself and trying to get in there, even if I wasn’t going to start,” Bohannon said after Tuesday’s practice. “No matter what, you need to push yourself as if you’re fighting for the position and that’s not what I was doing last year.
“I was playing a second-teamer’s role and that’s bad.”
After a sophomore season that ended with just nine tackles in 11 games, Bohannon decided he needed a fresh approach.
He picked the right time.
Buoyed by a defensive line depth chart that lacks experience and bodies, Bohannon has primarily worked as a first-team defensive end throughout spring practice on the opposite side of Jacques Smith.
“I have been attacking and attacking and not accepted being second,” Bohannon said. “I have tried to be first at everything and to the best of my ability.”
Though he managed just the nine tackles, Bohannon picked up two sacks — one against Georgia and another late in the season at Vanderbilt. His light body and shifty speed made it tough for bigger tackles to stop him when he was able to peel off the edge and jet toward the quarterback.
But that was really the only situation where he was tough to block. He was too one-dimensional to garner much playing time behind a consistent player such as Walker who, despite an injury-plagued senior season, proved to be one of the more valuable cogs in UT’s depth-ridden defense in 2010.
Now, Bohannon is working toward earning that type of trust from his teammates and coaches by making his game less predictable.
“He’s not as finesse,” defensive line coach Lance Thompson said. “You can’t play finesse in this league at the defensive line. He’s gotten more physical, he pushes himself more and he’s had a nice spring for himself.”
Bohannon’s focus has been most heavily devoted toward stopping the run. At 246 pounds, up a bit from what he weighed last year, that’s not exactly the easiest thing to do, but he’s been fast to pick up on how to utilize proper technique and leverage to maximize his size and frustrate his opponent.
“We’ve all had to wrestle those guys growing up,” coach Derek Dooley said. “He’s a little guy but he knows how to use his strength. Some little guys get overpowered, some big guys don’t understand leverage, but he understands leverage so he plays a lot stronger than what his body type is.”
Bohannon is currently in the midst of the arduous process of adding weight to a frame that’s already close to maximum capacity. He topped out at 250 pounds during the offseason but has dropped four pounds during the spring.
He has carried that “first-team” mindset away from the field, though, and has made drastic changes to his diet.
The Bohannon who used to skip meals and skimp on the proteins, much like the Bohannon who settled for second-team status, is no more.
“The best players are going to play and I think they understand that,” Thompson said. “I think Willie is turning into a competitor and turned his game up a little bit. We’ll see what the freshmen do coming in the fall and having everybody compete.”
Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble