Wilcox points at 3rd down keys

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If the Tennessee football team wants to improve on the scoreboard this season, allowing opponents to score fewer than 35 points per game than they did in the Vols' losses is critical.

Getting off the field on third down to halt drives has been a point of stress throughout preseason camp.

"It's been a focus since Day 1 of camp, just making sure we keep our percentage down on third downs," defensive back Byron Moore said.

In 2010, opponents converted on third down 39 percent of the time. Those numbers look much worse for the Volunteers in their seven losses, having allowed foes to move the chains at a clip of 46.2 percent (43 of 93).

"The whole key to being really good on third down — and this is like profound statement now so tape recorders on — is you've got to be good on first and second down. So, you get them in third-and-long so you can go rush the passer. You talk about third-down defense, which is critical for any defense, to be good, you've got to be great on third down. But, really, what people forget is the difference between third-and-two and third-and-seven-plus is huge."

Having 53 starts' worth of experience back from the four defensive backs that started against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl, it would seem apparent that Wilcox will reach deep into a bag of blitz packages to bring the heat on third downs knowing he has DBs that he can trust.

"There's times," the second-year DC said, "but you also have to say, 'OK, how do we match up against their receivers? Do we want to put our guys in man coverage against these guys? Do we not?' It's going to be game-by-game. Sometimes you're going to pin your ears back and bring everybody. You've just got to balance that. I don't think it can be a wholesale one way or the other. Now, obviously the better rush you can get with four guys, the more apt you're going to be playing coverage."

With the addition of junior college transfers Moore and Izauea Lanier, the depth in the defensive backfield is much-improved. However, each is still adjusting to life at preseason camp with a Southeastern Conference team.

Junior college transfers Izauea Lanier and Byron Moore bolster the defensive backfield.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)

"They haven't played obviously so their learning curve has been steeper," Wilcox said. "It's definitely different than playing in junior college in terms of what they're asked to do on a daily basis not only physically but mentally. So, that's been a little bit of a challenge for them but both those guys we're excited about where they're going. They've just got to continue to grind at it. I would expect to see steady improvements from those guys because they are new to the program."

While sophomores Lanier and Moore get their feet wet, the cornerback position ranks in with redshirt junior Prentiss Waggner, junior Marsalis Teague and freshman Justin Coleman in the top three slots.

While coach Derek Dooley has alluded to Waggner having earned a starting spot, Wilcox wasn't so quick to anoint anyone to the lineup.

"I'd be careful about saying anybody's got anything locked down," he said.

Coleman's toughness is a major factor in how the Brunswick, Ga., native has carved his way into the mix as a starter. Also, as Wilcox noted, Coleman's graduating from high school early to get to campus in Knoxville was quite helpful.

"No doubt about it. It's giving them a free, what, eight months of preparing for your freshman season. So, to get him here to work out, learn the systems in spring football, you can't put a price on that," Wilcox said.

Tennessee's opponents are likely to see a more schematically dynamic Vol defense in 2011, including more use of the nickel package. Who comes off and who goes onto the field depends on the foe and its personnel.

"You might see a number of different people," Wilcox said. "You could see Janzen. You could see Prentiss. You could see Teague. You could see a number of guys in there because the skills that they use in there, the concepts, the coverage."

The bonus pass defender is likely to be an extra cornerback with the skill set that position brings.

"At the end of the day, there's only a certain amount of things you can play so it's just as opposed to playing it out there, you're playing it in here. They're a little more involved in the run front sometimes," Wilcox said.

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