Tennessee football practice on April 9, 2013
Butch Jones likes easy-to-remember numbers and statistics that both motivate and inform.
So it was little surprise that junior linebacker A.J. Johnson quickly rattled off a numerical goal Tuesday when asked about the progress of the defense.
“Our goal is to keep first down efficiency under three yards,” he said. “Eighty percent, that’s our goal.”
Wait. Three yards or less on 80 percent of first downs? Even factoring in incomplete passes, that’s a tall order.
“Yes, sir,” Johnson replied.
Suffice it to say, last year’s defense was a long way from that aspiration, although many of the unit’s woes in 2012 can be traced to prominent failures on third down.
But coaches have tried to erase the memories of the defense that was ranked near the bottom of the country. And they’ve told Johnson, whose 138 tackles were best in the SEC and fourth in the country, that they’re worried more about other numbers than tackles.
“In this defense, my goal is to get my job done first,” Johnson said. “My tackles might go down; they might go up.”
Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen has told Johnson they don’t need him to be everywhere all the time. The Vols just need him to do his job.
Part of the challenge has been deciphering what exactly that job is. Confusion reigned during Sal Sunseri’s tenure as defensive coordinator. A complex defense and players ill-equipped to handle it yielded predictable results.
New coordinator John Jancek tore down the defense to the simplest level and started rebuilding from scratch this spring. That has eased the pressure on the linebackers, who are tasked with making many of the reads and calls on defense.
The numbers have slimmed down, too. A year ago, Tennessee needed four linebackers. Today, they use three — and often just two, given the frequent nickel sets that replace a third linebacker with a fifth defensive back.
The changes aren’t dramatic. The fourth linebacker in last year’s system is now a Leo end and performs many of the same tasks, but now starts by lining up with his hand on the ground.
After Johnson, the Vols have options. Safety Brent Brewer moved to linebacker to enhance team speed. And coaches and teammates have raved about Dontavis Sapp.
“Dontavis is becoming a great player,” Brewer said. “He’s improving every day.”
Seniors Channing Fugate and Raiques Crump and third-year sophomore Christian Harris will provide depth.
Junior Curt Maggitt is the wild card.
Coaches have floated the idea of moving him to the Leo end spot. If they feel good about the situation, that idea becomes more palatable.
Maggitt is sitting out spring practice with an injury and coaches don’t have to make a decision until this summer.
Until then, Johnson is repeating a mantra that conference-leading tacklers rarely have to make.
“I need to do better,” he said.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.