Togetherness helps

Most football fans recognize the importance of teamwork on offense. The linemen must block in unison. The tailback/receiver/tight end must be precisely where he's supposed to be and the quarterback must deliver the ball to the right spot at the right time.

What fans may not realize is that teamwork is just as vital on defense ... and that's where the 2011 Vols may be ahead of the 2010 Vols. After a full year in coordinator Justin Wilcox's scheme, the defenders sense a lot more cohesion and togetherness on the stop unit.

"I feel like we're playing together more," sophomore defensive end Jacques Smith said. "We're communicating more, and I feel like that's helping our defense learn the scheme.

"Last year it was like three separate groups. You had your defensive backs talking to each other, your linebackers talking to each other and your D-line talking about the games and stuff inside.

"Now it's like everybody's talking. Linebackers are hearing what we (linemen) are calling, and it confirms what they're calling. Then it's like a trickle-down effect with the whole defense. The communication aspect of the defense is helping us play a lot faster and better."

Senior linebacker Austin Johnson also senses a lot more cohesion on defense this year - personally, as well as schematically.

"I feel like these guys are really close," he said. "All of us are really close on defense. We have a lot of energy. I feel like we play well with each other. If we just keep working and learning our stuff, I feel like we'll play very well together next year."

After playing a John Chavis defense in 2008, a Monte Kiffin defense in 2009 and a Justin Wilcox defense in 2010, Vol defenders' heads were spinning a bit. That's why getting a second year in Wilcox's system is such a positive development.

"The scheme has changed a lot," Smith said. "It's a lot more complex. Having a year does help."

Junior cornerback Marsalis Teague was a newcomer to defense last fall, having played wide receiver as a freshman in 2009. He feels far more comfortable with Wilcox's scheme this spring, and senses that his fellow defenders do, too.

"I feel like that's the case with the team, not just me personally," he said. "I feel like the entire team is used to the system, having last year under our belt. We're much more comfortable with the checks, offensively and defensively now. We'll just keep on gradually improving and be ready by the time the season comes."

Although all of Tennessee's defenders seem to be benefiting from having a full year in Wilcox's system, younger guys such as 2010 signees Jacques Smith, Corey Miller, Brent Brewer, John Propst, Dontavis Sapp, Raiques Crump and Martaze Jackson seem to be making the biggest strides.

"We've grown," senior linebacker Daryl Vereen said. "We needed that year last year. There's no more freshmen. They know what to expect against Alabama. They know what to expect against Florida. I feel like we're a much more experienced defense this year."

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