Tennessee was set up for mishaps on its defensive front.
A season opener. A foreign venue. A new defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. A new defensive alignment. A commitment to situational defense. Two players on the front three who had never started a college game.
Yet no disasters were forthcoming in a 35-21 victory over North Carolina State.
The Vols didn't just take care of the Wolfpack in the Georgia Dome last Friday, they took care of their business up front, which is the least experienced area of UT's defense.
Maybe Tennessee fans would have felt better if the Vols had registered more sacks. But they at least forced quarterback Mike Glennon out of his comfort zone from time to time; helped hold the Wolfpack to 119 yards rushing; didn't give up a run of more than 16 yards; and never found themselves with too many or too few players on the front line.
That qualifies as a successful beginning for a group that fostered questions in preseason. The questions didn't signify a weakness, according to new defensive line coach, John Palermo.
"I don't think (the defensive line) is a weakness at all," he said in preseason.
His assessment held up for the season opener. Whatever breakdowns that occurred up front were hardly glaring — and nothing close to the blunder that occurred during UT's first road venture under coach Derek Dooley. Two years ago, the Vols lost a game they should have won against 12th-ranked LSU when their last-second defensive substitutions left them with a beefed-up defensive front two over the 11-man limit.
Last week's opener didn't always go like clockwork, though.
"It was kind of hectic at first," defensive lineman Maurice Couch said. "A lot of guys weren't used to the noise level. We used a lot of hand signals."
And they soon figured out they couldn't go a play without looking over to the sideline for substitution instructions.
New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri has emphasized the importance of matching the offensive personnel since he arrived from Alabama. Or, as he puts it, "If they go big, we want to go big; if they go small, we want to go small."
So defensive players better be prepared to go in and out at a second's notice. That's especially true on the defensive front, where eight different players saw action against N.C. State.
"Coach (Palermo) is a very intense guy," Couch said. "But he tried to keep it sort of calm on game day. He was just trying to make sure guys know what to do with substitutions. We handled it very well."
Palermo deserves some of the credit for that. Dooley thought Palermo's 37 years of coaching experience — mostly in the defensive line — would serve this team well. So far, so good.
The defense had a couple of other things going for it against the Wolfpack, according to Couch.
"They had a few good guys (in the offensive line)," he said. "But in our conference, we have more physical guys up front. I think we have the best offensive line in the nation. They're gonna make us better every day."
The defense also has benefited from the up-tempo offense it has been practicing against since the spring.
"The fast-paced style of offense we run keeps us in shape," Couch said. "We're in tiptop shape."
But if they have a hint of fatigue, they know where to look for help.