Annual debate

It's as much a rite of spring in the Knoxville area as the blossoming of the Dogwood Trees: The annual speculation that the Tennessee Vols are switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4.

Don't have four SEC-caliber defensive linemen? No sweat. Just put the three best linemen out there, plus an extra linebacker. It's a cure-all solution.

Right on cue, rumblings that defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is moving toward the 3-4 and away from the 4-3 are swirling again this spring. So, the obvious course of action was to ask Wilcox point-blank:

Will you be going to more 3-4 this season?

"People think when you have less D-linemen you just go 3-4 and that's the magic solution, which is far from the case," the coordinator said, flashing an amused grin. "To play in a true 3-4 defense you've got to have really big bodies at both defensive end positions and a true zero nose. And your inside linebackers are usually real big people.

"Personnel-wise, the way we're built physically right now, we're more of a 4-3 team."

Lance Thompson, who coaches Vol defensive linemen, agreed that Tennessee's personnel is better suited to a 4-3 base alignment than a 3-4.

"In the 3-4 typically you've got bigger ends because you've got 2-gap offensive tackles who are big guys," he said. "You can slant with quick guys in the 3-4 but if you're going to play a true 2-gap scheme in 3-4, you need those bigger, thicker, wide-body guys in there."

Asked if Tennessee has enough of those "bigger, thicker, wide-body guys," Thompson replied: "We've got some but we're more suited for what we're doing."

Still, he says the Vols will venture from their base 4-3 alignment on occasion.

"Absolutely," he said. "You've got to be multiple nowadays because offenses give you so much stuff."

Given all of the above, you get the idea that the 3-4 is going to be a very small part of Tennessee's 2011 defensive scheme. Before concluding his thoughts on the topic, however, Wilcox threw in a bit of a qualifier.

"Now we're going to jump into some 3-4 in certain packages," he said. "We'll be multiple. We want to make sure we give the offense enough looks so they can't dial us up."

So, the ultimate answer to the question of how much 3-4 the Vols will play in the season ahead is ...

Flashing a smug grin, Wilcox cryptically replied: "We'll see, is the answer."

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