Tennessee is focusing on fundamentals in its attempt to improve a defense that statistically ranked among the worst in school history last season.
The first area of concern is tackling, something the Volunteers didn't do often enough or well enough a year ago.
“To line up and play defense, you've got to be great tacklers,” safety Byron Moore said. “If you can't tackle, it doesn't matter what scheme we put in or what play we call if we can't get the man on the ground.”
Tennessee allowed the most points (35.7) and yards (471.4) per game of any Southeastern Conference team last season. The Vols hadn't allowed that high a scoring average since 1893, when they gave up 42.7 points per game while playing a six-game schedule. Tennessee hadn't given up that many yards per game since at least 1950, the earliest year its sports information department has that statistic on file.
The Vols return at least eight players from that defense who made at least six starts last season. That figure moves up to nine if you include defensive back Eric Gordon, who remains on the roster but didn't practice with the team last week while addressing some unspecified off-field issues.
That list of returners is headlined by linebacker A.J. Johnson, who had 138 tackles last season and ranked fourth nationally with 11.5 tackles per game. Moore ranked second on the team with 86 tackles and tied for the SEC lead with five interceptions.
But Tennessee won't upgrade its defense unless all the returning players perform much better. That starts with improving on the most basic of skills.
“Obviously we've got a lot of work to do on our tackling,” new defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “That's pretty obvious to everyone who was out here. We're missing a lot of tackles.”
Tennessee is switching to a 4-3 defense this season after a disastrous experiment with a 3-4 alignment last year. For the first part of spring practice, new coach Butch Jones' staff has concentrated more on improving fundamentals than installing the new scheme. That figures to continue next week as the Vols return from spring break and resume practice.
“It doesn't do you any good to have a bunch of calls if they don't know how to tackle, they don't know how to run to the ball or they're not doing the things necessary to play great defense,” Jancek said. “I'm not even worried about that. I want them to learn how to play the game with the tempo and passion we want to have on defense. Once we establish that, then we can implement things.”
The players understand this emphasis.
Moore agrees the Vols have to improve their tackling. Asked whether tackling was a weakness of this defense last year, Moore offered a blunt response.
“Last year, I think everything went bad, so anything could be considered a weakness,” Moore said.
Indeed, Tennessee's defense struggled in just about every area last season. The Vols ranked 13th out of 14 SEC teams in sacks per game (1.42) and run defense (188.8). They gave up 4.8 yards per carry.
The Vols realize they have a long way to go. They got another reminder after their first spring scrimmage.
“I think we started out good at first, and as it went on, I think we started to doubt,” defensive lineman Marlon Walls said of the scrimmage performance. “That's been our M.O. for this defense for the last few years.”
This isn't necessarily cause for alarm.
Jancek noted this isn't the first time he took over a defense that needed to improve its tackling. He previously worked as a defensive coordinator or co-defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, Georgia and Central Michigan.
“I'd say it's pretty normal, was to be expected,” Jancek said. “I'm not shocked by it, put it that way.”