KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's transition to a different defensive scheme has plenty of Volunteers learning a new system along with several different positions.
New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is switching from a primarily 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme.
Coach Derek Dooley wants the Volunteers to be more aggressive on defense than last season under Justin Wilcox, who left in January for the defensive coordinator position at Washington.
"It helps us make more plays because it gives us more room to play and blitz and drop back and make plays instead of just having us sit in one spot," sophomore A.J. Johnson said.
The 6-foot-3, 244-pound Johnson was a freshman All-American last season after recording 80 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss and recovering two fumbles. Johnson spent the majority of the spring playing at one linebacker spot in the base defense and moves inside in nickel packages.
"He is a bigger guy that plays inside. He is a guy that is doing a lot of great things," Sunseri said. "Eventually, I am going to also see him rush the passer, too. That guy has the ability to make plays. I am going to stick him on the edge and see how he can rush the passer."
Herman Lathers exceeded expectations while playing that inside position this spring. Lathers missed all of last season after fracturing his ankle during the summer and has battled numerous injures throughout his time at Tennessee. Having started 17 games in his career and played under fourth defensive coordinators, Lathers understands the responsibilities and communication required from him.
"I know a lot of positions so that helps a lot with me getting everyone lined up," Lathers said. "As the 'Mike' linebacker, I have to be the orchestrator out there and run the show."
Coaches weren't sure what kind of production they were going to get out of Lathers this spring, and are cautiously optimistic.
"Knock on wood, but Herman has been great," Dooley said. "Leadership, experience, he's really fitting into the scheme well. If we can keep Herman Lathers healthy, that is going to be a really big key for our defense.
"When you've had as many injuries as he has, the first sign of pain it probably makes you a little nervous. He's working through it and he's really playing good football for us."
Curt Maggitt made 56 tackles last season as a freshman while starting eight games. He's been limited this spring to a non-contact role after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. The 6-foot-3, 227-pounder worked at all four linebacker positions this spring, and said the most difficult part is learning to play outside instead of inside where he has to communicate a lot more with defensive linemen and the secondary.
Sunseri, who coached outside linebackers at Alabama the past three years, is experimenting with multiple players at the "Jack" position. Jacques Smith, Willie Bohannon, Jordan Williams and Steven Fowlkes — all former defensive ends — earned praise from coaches with their adjustments in tweener roles this spring playing multiple linebacking spots, as well as learning new techniques at defensive end.
Raiques Crump and Dontavis Sapp, both juniors who played mainly special teams during their first two years at Tennessee, also have benefited from the scheme change. Crump is working some with the first-team defense this spring, while Sapp substitutes when the Vols go to an extra defensive back package.
Tennessee concludes its spring practice Saturday with the annual Orange and White game. This year, the Orange team pits the first-team defense and second-team offense against the first-team offense and the second-team defense for the White to help eliminate mismatches. In previous spring games, upperclassmen held a draft to select the rosters.
Sophomore wide receiver Justin Hunter will not play in the scrimmage. Hunter wore a red, non-contact jersey this spring while rehabbing from a torn left ACL injury he suffered last September.
Dooley said there's a "good chance" defensive backs Prentiss Waggner and Brent Brenter, both of whom have been non-contact this spring, will play on Saturday.