Together again

When a position recently came open on Tennessee's defensive staff, coordinator Justin Wilcox didn't exactly conduct a national search to fill it. Basically, he walked down the hall and tabbed his college roommate.

Peter Sirmon and Wilcox were teammates on Oregon football teams that won 30 games between 1996 and '99 - Sirmon starring at linebacker, Wilcox starting in the secondary. Sirmon went on to play seven seasons for the NFL's Tennessee Titans, while Wilcox was getting a head start on his coaching career.

Now that Sirmon has been promoted from grad assistant to linebackers coach for the Big Orange, they're together again and hoping the chemistry they developed as teammates/roommates at Oregon 15 years ago can help Tennessee return to glory.

"Justin and I have got a really strong relationship," Sirmon said today, giving his first interview with media who cover the Vols. "We've known each other for a long time - roommates in college - so we have a good working relationship. We can both talk frankly with each other and understand that it's work."

While assisting secondary coach Terry Joseph with Vol defensive backs last fall, Sirmon got an up-close look at Wilcox's coaching skills. He came away impressed.

"He's done a great job of leading the defense," Sirmon said. "The players love him and the players really play hard for him."

Obviously, a friendship can enhance a working relationship. Phillip Fulmer's greatest success as Tennessee's head coach occurred while close friend David Cutcliffe was coordinating the Vol offense. Perhaps the chemistry Wilcox and Sirmon have will prove similarly beneficial.

"There's familiarity with how he behaves, and I think there's some positives to that," Sirmon said. "I think we communicate well on Saturdays. When things get heated, we move past that and realize it's not personal but professional. It's easy to move past that because we know each other, and then you move on to the next week."

Tennessee must replace three of last fall's top four linebackers - starters Nick Reveiz and LaMarcus Thompson, along with key reserve Savion Frazier. Clearly, Sirmon's ability to develop talent will be tested in his first year as a full-time assistant.

"It is going to be tested right off the bat," he conceded. "We've got some young players coming in that are very talented, and it's the coach's responsibility to get those players up to speed as quickly as possible."

Sirmon said he is impressed with the offseason work of returning linebackers such as Austin Johnson, John Propst and Daryl Vereen. The Vol aide also is encouraged by the return of Greg King, who missed most of the 2010 season due to injury. Still, Tennessee hopes to get incoming freshmen A.J. Johnson and Christian Harris prepared to contribute early.

"Most of the time we spend is trying to make hard things easy," Sirmon said. "You have to be very deliberate and careful with the words you use, to make sure you're communicating the right things. Coach Dooley's philosophy is to say one thing 500 times and not 500 things one time."

Minus Reveiz, Thompson and Frazier, Tennessee probably needs immediate help from Johnson and Harris. Sirmon believes several factors will determine how much the rookies provide.

"A lot's going to depend on the relationship we have, how fast I can get them up to speed and how willing they are to put in the extra time - their mental makeup - if they're willing to endure some of the failures they're going have early on," he said.

"And we've got to make sure they're in shape. A lot times young guys come in and get a lot of reps and their body's not ready for it. They pull a hamstring or pull a groin and they're out four to five weeks. Before you know it, it's the 12th game of the season and they're just getting in the groove because they've missed so much time.

"It's a delicate balance of getting them prepared physically and mentally but not getting so much on their plate that they break down and they're not the player they were when you signed them."

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