Malik Jackson on defense
Willie Bohannon on the pressure by the defense
There are former offensive players starting at two critical positions for his defense, and another comes off the bench.
Tennessee's most consistent defensive lineman started at end, moved inside to tackle and now rotates between both depending on the situation.
The Vols playing in the secondary are subject to change almost every week, starting with the seemingly constant shuttling between safety and cornerback for perhaps their best playmaker in the backfield.
At every level it can be tempting to look at what Justin Wilcox has to work with and write the roster off as a collection of spare parts. And by comparison, the UT defensive coordinator obviously isn't working with the most talented or deepest bunch of athletes in the conference.
But seemingly just by making do with a group of newcomers and whatever else was laying around, Wilcox and the rest of the staff have built a more than serviceable unit — tinkering and tweaking, tightening and testing by using all the defensive tools they've got in the box. And while ultimately UT might be better off if it didn't have to be so creative with its personnel heading into a trip to No. 8 Arkansas (8-1, 4-1 SEC) on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 6 p.m.), that trait might serve it even better down the road.
"I mean, I think the key to playing defense is you find out what you do well, what your strengths and weaknesses are," Wilcox said. "Then you have to put guys in position to use their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. That's really our goal, and that should be the goal of any defense.
"We have to find out who we think our best guys are to help us win the game, whether we play 11 guys and rotate three or four or whether we rotate another 11. It changes from year to year on who you've got, and we're trying to use the guys we've got as best we can."
In his second season with the Vols (4-5, 0-5), that process has continued well into the final month of the regular season as Wilcox keeps searching for matchups each week as the program hunts down enough wins for another bowl appearance.
The preseason dismissal of star safety Janzen Jackson has had a lasting impact on the secondary, which has led to a couple more position changes for versatile defensive back Prentiss Waggner. But the Vols were already moving puzzle pieces around long before training camp to maximize the talent on hand defensively.
Daniel Hood transitioned from a reserve offensive lineman to a regular in the starting lineup at defensive tackle. Before that, Malik Jackson began his emergence with the program last fall after UT slid him inside to tackle from end — and he's now capable of lining up in either spot.
Two years ago Austin Johnson was a fullback, sparking one victory with a touchdown catch. Last week the senior middle linebacker made his second interception of the season to help lead another and boost a unit still in the midst of a rebuilding effort to No. 28 in the nation in scoring defense.
"Justin has done a great job," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "We've really been this way on both sides of the ball, since the roster did not lend itself to just putting in 11 guys and go play. We've had to try to make the best of what our roster situation was in all three phases, and sometimes we don't do as good a job as we need to do as coaches and we can do better.
"Sometimes you do everything you can do and it's not working, and sometimes it works."
There have still been times where it has been more of the former than the latter for the Vols this season.
There have been long drives marred by an inability to make crucial tackles or get third-down stops that cost the Vols dearly. In other games, they've been burned through the air with breakdowns in coverage. Against LSU and Alabama they were able to put together strong outings early before getting overpowered after halftime.
But UT has also only allowed 14 points total over the last two games and is coming off a shutout a week ago. And the highest-scoring offense in the conference will provide another barometer of how much progress the Vols have really made.
"It's just about everybody buying into that blue-collar approach," Hood said. "We've said all year that we're a blue-collar group.
"We're not going to out-athlete anybody."
That hasn't prevented the Vols from stopping a few folks along the way.