Assuming a stop unit that was gashed for 162.7 rushing yards per game in 2011, first-year coordinator Sal Sunseri has given his troops a rhyming reminder of their ultimate goal for 2012.
"Sal's whole emphasis is stopping the run," junior defensive tackle Marlon Walls said following Friday's first spring scrimmage. "He says, 'We can't have no fun till we stop the run.'"
The Vols had mixed results against the run in the scrimmage. They limited first-team tailback Marlin Lane to 8 yards on 7 carries but backups Rajion Neal (15 for 100 yards), Devrin Young (8 for 60) and Alden Hill (9 for 39) produced some nice gains. Neal had a 23-yard burst, Young a 24-yarder and Hill a 15-yarder.
"We did OK," Walls said of the defensive effort. "I'm always going to be our worst critic, and the only thing I can think about right now is the plays I messed up. We've got to get better at it."
Fans shouldn't read too much into the first scrimmage since the Vols are adjusting to a new defensive scheme (3-4) and an all-new defensive staff this spring. In addition to Sunseri coaching the linebackers and coordinating the unit, the defenders are adjusting to a new line coach (John Palermo), a new cornerbacks coach (Derrick Ansley) and a new safeties coach (Josh Conklin).
There's a new emphasis on disguise and deception, too.
"Oh, man, it's fun," Walls said. "Sal is doing a great job of keeping us moving. It's a lot of fun, as opposed to just playing straight up. We're making our offensive line chase us. They can't just come off the ball and know where we're at because we're moving around a lot."
There also is a new emphasis on aggressiveness. Whereas former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox coached the linemen to fill their gaps, Sunseri wants them storming into the offensive backfield on a regular basis.
"Oh, yeah. This defense is all about penetration, playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage," Walls said. "That's in all the scheme Sal has put in. He's done a great job of keeping us moving, and defensive linemen love moving."
Tennessee's defensive linemen didn't spend as much time as they'd hoped plundering the offensive backfield on Friday but the season is still five months away.
"Coach Palermo is doing a good job of teaching us to come out of our hips and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage," Walls said, "so I'm pretty sure we'll get better at it."
A huge problem Tennessee defenders had last fall was second-half fades. The 2011 Vols allowed just 111 first-half points but 160 second-half points. Based on Friday's scrimmage, that problem hasn't been solved yet.
"Just like last year, we have to get better in the second half," Walls said. "We have to be mentally tougher. That is something we want to get right.... We were tough first half, and then we came back second half and I guess we got lethargic and fell back. That is something that can't happen."
Although the consensus among Vol players seemed to be that the defense won the scrimmage, Walls declined to claim victory.
"I go to meetings sometimes and think I did good at practice, and Sal will rip me or Coach Palermo will rip me, then I (realize) I didn't do as good as I thought I did," he said. "So I don't guess anymore. I wait till Monday and see the film. If I get cussed out more than nine times, I'll know I did awful. If they get on me a couple of times, I know I did all right."
Although teammates say Walls is having a fine spring, he described his work as "OK." Still, he admits he's a much better player than he was last fall, when he recorded 22 tackles, 5 hurries and four starts in 12 games.
"Playing last season definitely helped me out. I feel like I'm more comfortable," he said. "Nothing really excites me or overwhelms me. I've been through the wars, and I'm more comfortable now."
Now that Malik Jackson has exhausted his eligibility, Walls finds himself surrounded by young and inexperienced players in Tennessee's defensive front.
"I know my role on this D-line is to lead these guys," he said. "We have a lot of young guys but we can't use that as an excuse. I know those guys look at me. I'm pretty sure I'm a comfort zone for some of those guys, so I can't get all bottled up and frustrated. I think I'm more calm, and I think that's my role on the team."
At 6-feet-2 and 290 pounds, Walls is capable of playing end in the 3-4 and tackle in the 4-3. That makes him one valuable Vol.
"I'm playing a lot more 3 technique (tackle), so I've got to take on a lot more double-teams," he said. "The first few days it was tough, but now I'm starting to get it down. If you beat the guy in front of you, you don't have to worry about the guy pushing on the other side. Physically, it's tough, but that's why you play this game."
After playing last season at 280, Walls finds the extra 10 pounds helpful in trench warfare.
"It feels good to be weight-wise where you can hold your own in there. I think 288 to 290 is a good weight for me," he said. "I'm moving pretty good. I'm very comfortable in that position. I'm not worried about getting blown off the ball unless there's a mistake with my hands or feet. Other than that, I'm pretty sure I can hold my own on the inside."
If Walls and the other down linemen can "hold their own" this fall, Tennessee's run defense could be pretty stout. That's because the Vols are loaded at linebacker with Herman Lathers, A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt and others.
"I think we're putting guys in better position to make plays," Walls said. "Having those four linebackers behind us — we've got some pretty good linebackers — I think we'll be a little better."
Until the Vols get better, though, they're sure to get a steady dose of their new motto: "We can't have no fun till we stop the run."
To see what Vol coach Derek Dooley had to say following Friday's scrimmage, click play on the video below: