Mike Strange: Vols' defense looks to forge a new identity

Mike Strange
In this photo taken March 16, 2013, Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek directs players during spring NCAA college football practice in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)

In this photo taken March 16, 2013, Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek directs players during spring NCAA college football practice in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Amy Smotherman Burgess)

Like any new coach at a new school, defensive coordinator John Jancek was curious about what he inherited in Tennessee’s defense.

Mainly, a bad rap.

UT’s defense was sufficiently awful in 2012 to get a coaching staff fired.

But when Jancek studied videotape of last year’s debacle, he wasn’t interested in charting all the big plays and third-and-long conversions that sabotaged a season.

Secondary coach Willie Martinez talks Saturday about the depth at safety.

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“I watched it,’’ Jancek said Saturday, “just to kind of evaluate the individual players, to see how they performed.

“To see what kind of effort they have. Just to see how they played ball.’’

Since UT was switching from a 3-4 defensive look to a 4-3, there was little to be learned from a schematic standpoint. Like Jancek said, he just wanted to see how his guys played ball.

All that matters now, of course, is how they play ball in 2013 and beyond.

Using their failures of the past as motivation for the future is a tactic to be handled carefully.

“I don’t bring it up,’’ Jancek said. “I don’t throw it in their face. I tell them that we’re forward thinkers. That was the past and we’re developing a new identity and a new focus for the future.’’

Still, he and the other new coaches hope they don’t have to throw it in the players’ faces. The players should have done that themselves at some point.

Jancek: “I think the guys should take it personal. If they’re a competitor, it bothers ’em.

“We should be a defense that has something to prove.’’

There’s the solid middle ground — don’t relive the past, look to the future. But do it with a chip on your shoulder.

“We’re just worried about this year,’’ said junior Justin Coleman, a veteran of that beleaguered secondary.

Safety LaDarrell McNeil: “We’re moving on.’’

Moving on with a new sense of purpose and some new bodies.

Two days into practice, there’s a storyline emerging with a pair of true freshmen installed as the first reserves at cornerback behind Coleman and spring arrival Rihayd Jones.

Malik Foreman and Cameron Sutton are the freshmen. Their heads are certainly spinning after their introduction to how college football teams practice.

Early in Saturday’s session at Haslam Field, Foreman was singled out for a one-on-one test against receiver Cody Blanc. With the entire squad watching, Blanc beat Foreman and made a catch in the end zone.

“It’s a lesson to Malik,’’ said head coach Butch Jones, “that every time you step on the football field, you’ve got to be ready to play.’’

Jancek says they will in fact play. In a best-case scenario, they’ll be ready. Qualify that to as ready as a true freshman can be.

At least they’ve got the skill sets. That’s a start.

“I’m encouraged,’’ Jones said. “I think we really helped ourselves at that position.’’

Enough about the new. Some old faces are especially critical in determining to what extent this defense can spruce up its image.

When Jancek watched to see how his guys played in 2012, he determined tackle Dan McCullers and middle linebacker A.J. Johnson need to be more disruptive.

McCullers has to play as big as his dimensions. Johnson has to take ownership of the defense.

“He’s the middle linebacker,’’ Jancek said. “That’s a badge of honor.’’

There was little honor in being part of Tennessee’s 2012 defense.

A new identity would be well received.

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.

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Comments » 10

DutchOrangeVolsOrange writes:

God I hope so because last years squad just got torched time and time again. If this defense is not improved even slightly, I shutter to think how many points Oregon might hang on Vols!

Volnharr writes:

Man I like this entire coaching staff's approach to the 2013 season. Good article Mike. Their not going to let this team forget the past, instead, their going to use it like a real coaching staff would and make it the ashes that the "Phoenix" rises from. This team is going to make some "UT Football" history this year.
"Get InVOLved"!
GBO/VFL

wononta writes:

Last yr was last yr, never had a chance. Can we, like the fellas said, move on now..?

This yr intangables aside, I belive the Vols will have a top...5 defense, SEC. Jacques Smith is a head-hunter. We need Maggitt back at full speed, and somebody to step-up on the weak side. Good spot for Bynum. The return of Randolf in the secondary cant do anything but help. Dback's could be the most improved unit on the defense. And I predict Randolf will be All-American this yr.

Orange_Power_T writes:

It was evident that last year's D was nothing more than a ninth-grade science experiment gone terribly wrong. During game three of last season, it was announced Sunseri was adding D plays to the playbook. By game six, our D couldn't even line up correctly prior to the snap- much less having the ability to execute. If you recruit for a 4-3 D, then play a 4-3 D. Just switching the D back to a 4-3 this year will show 20% improvement. Add in a coach who knows what he's doing during the first half of the game and able to make adjustments during halftime, I can see our D MUCH improved. Last year we were afraid to gamble on a blitz fearing the secondary would completely dissolve. All I hear this year is our D line and linebackers have to become more disruptive. That should give you a preview of things to come. Looking forward to a GREATLY improved defense!

johnlg00 writes:

I certainly agree that there can be good players even on a bad defense. However, I don't know if the Vols have corrected what surely looked like a fatal lack of speed in the defensive backfield. It was disheartening to see our DBs so often in futile pursuit on long plays. It's one thing to get beat, but it's another not to be able to catch anybody if you do. Better alignment and technique and a better pass rush--line play in general--will help some, but there really is no substitute for speed in the backfield in the SEC. It's good that Randolph is back; a safety who can keep the top of the defense secure will also help a lot.

maciste54 writes:

My first tweet to Jones when he was announced coach. "Please fix the defense" I hope he received a multitude of those.

Colliervol writes:

in response to Orange_Power_T:

It was evident that last year's D was nothing more than a ninth-grade science experiment gone terribly wrong. During game three of last season, it was announced Sunseri was adding D plays to the playbook. By game six, our D couldn't even line up correctly prior to the snap- much less having the ability to execute. If you recruit for a 4-3 D, then play a 4-3 D. Just switching the D back to a 4-3 this year will show 20% improvement. Add in a coach who knows what he's doing during the first half of the game and able to make adjustments during halftime, I can see our D MUCH improved. Last year we were afraid to gamble on a blitz fearing the secondary would completely dissolve. All I hear this year is our D line and linebackers have to become more disruptive. That should give you a preview of things to come. Looking forward to a GREATLY improved defense!

I agree with you. I think the D had some good football players out there last year but they consistently looked out of position and I attribute that to the scheme they were trying to run. Will be curious to see how much improvement can happen with new coaches and a new defensive scheme.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

I hope our freshmen are fast.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to maciste54:

My first tweet to Jones when he was announced coach. "Please fix the defense" I hope he received a multitude of those.

I'm sure he did! I'm also pretty sure the defense was one of the first things he noticed that needed fixing on this team. They may not be world-beaters on defense this year, but I think they have a shot to be in the upper half of the league, for as long as their depth holds out, at least.

johnlg00 writes:

Kinda cruel to say it, I guess, but one thing that occurred to me when I read the headline was that some members of last year's defense might have NEEDED forged identities after the way they stunk it up. I think they have too much pride to live with that any longer. For this reason and those stated by others, the Vol defense WILL be better this year, and maybe a LOT better.

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