More size, more wrinkles

Tennessee's 2010 defense resembled a Chihuahua in that it lacked size and ferocity. The Vols' 2011 defense will be more like a Shar Pei — blessed with better size and a lot of wrinkles.

Now that he's had a full year year to implement his schemes and recruit quality athletes, second-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox admits that his troops will showcase a few more bells and whistles this fall.

"I think we definitely have more in," he said recently. "You don't want to make it confusing but it gives you a little more versatility to match up coverage-wise in certain situations."

With more athletes and more options schematically, Tennessee's defense should be better than last season, even though it will be decidedly young and inexperienced.

"I think, overall, we've improved," Wilcox said. "I don't think we're where we need to be by any means but I think we've improved as a club — from the front to the linebackers to the secondary. That's what's encouraging. We've just got to continue that curve."

Known as a guy who pulled out all the stops during his stint as defensive coordinator at Boise State, Wilcox was surprisingly vanilla on defense at Tennessee last fall. That was by necessity, rather than by design. His personnel limited what he could do.

"Everybody's got a certain personality, as far as what they want to do," he said. "At the same time, we're not going to take a square peg and jam it into a round hole. We want to find out what our strengths are and cater it (scheme) to what our players do best. That's any coach's job. If it was up to me, we'd blitz zero every snap but that's not realistic and it's not smart."

The arrival of dynamic freshman linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson, plus the return of a glut of veterans in the secondary, gives Wilcox far more flexibility than he had a year ago. That doesn't mean he'll be able to use every call in his bag of tricks this season, however.

"I don't know that there's any coach in the country that can do that," he said. "You're going to have strengths and weaknesses on every team, so you find out what those are — how to exploit your strengths and how to manage your weaknesses so you don't put guys in a bad position."

No matter how much experience or talent a defense has, success or failure usually hinges on its tackling. Wilcox emphasizes wrapping up ball carriers each day in practice, even though most Vol drills do not involve taking them to the ground.

"If you're going to play good defense you've got to be a great tackling team. That's just the reality," he said. "Tackling has ability involved. You've got to be a good athlete to be a good tackler. But it's also attitude and want-to ... wanting to get the guy on the ground. Defensive football starts with that — the attitude of how you play, how you run to the football. Those are the things that really matter."

Tennessee has more size in the front four, more athleticism at linebacker and more experience in the secondary than last fall, so Wilcox can't pinpoint one area that has made the greatest strides.

"There's a lot of individuals that have made strides," he said. "As a unit I think we have a much better understanding of what everybody's doing and why it's important to do it that way, in terms of your assignment on every play and playing technique.

"I think we've grown as a whole. Certain position groups ... I think we've seen gains in all of them. I still don't think we're exactly where we want to be or where we need to be but we've improved, and that's what we've got to continue to do."

Because young players have more to learn, they tend to improve more over the course of a season than veteran players. Wilcox is eager to see if that's the case for his 2011 defense.

"You hope you're going to see those strides," he said. "Usually, earlier in their career they're going to show 'em faster. As they get later in their career they (performance jumps) are smaller because they've been around longer."

Curt Maggitt (56) and A.J. Johnson (45)

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