Other teams would soon adopt the Dolphins defense and the shortage of quality tackles was the driving force behind its rise in popularity. It eventually fell out of favor because most team's lacked the 6-3, 250, linebacker who could cover the tight end and play opposite a pass-rushing specialist. Carl Banks filled that role with the New York Giants opposite Lawrence Taylor when the Giants won the Super Bowl in 1990. Ten years later the Baltimore Ravens rode the 3-4, featuring linebacker Ray Lewis, all the way to an NFL Championship. This was achieved despite an offense that had neither a high-profile quarterback or big-play capability. Those are arguably the most dominating NFL defensive units of the last 15 years.
For the fourth straight season it appears Tennessee will deploy an entirely new tandem at defensive tackle than the one that finished the prior year. In 2001 Tennessee had an imposing pair in John Henderson and Albert Haynesworth who are both currently NFL starters. In 2002, it was Aubrayo Franklin and Rashad Moore who anchored the defensive interior. Last year, Mondre Dickerson and Greg Jones began the year as starters before Dickerson was suspended from the team. A pair of true sophomore — Jones and Jonathan Mapu — finished the 2003 campaign first team. Unfortunately, Mapu left school to complete his Mormon mission and Jones is likely to miss the season as an academic casualty. So now Tennessee has to find a new set of starters at what is arguably the most significant position on defense. Because if you're not strong inside it's virtually impossible to be a strong defense — your run defense won't stop the straight dive, your pass rush can't create heat and your secondary is forced to cover four full counts. Even if your starting tackles are able to stalemate the opponents' guards and center, the second line DTs must be just as strong to prevent a drop off at a position that has more physical demands than any other on defense. Ideally, in the SEC you would have five defensive tackles to keep fresh troops rotating in and out of a contest. With a 3-4 defense, Tennessee could better utilize its depth at linebacker and defensive end while offsetting its limitations at defensive tackle. The question is does UT presently have the personnel to play the three key roles of nose tackle, strong-side linebacker and rush backer? Undoubtedly, a player of Kevin Burnett's talents is perfect to play the weak-side linebacker who is deployed at the end of the line and brings speed from the edge ala L.T. (Lawrence Taylor). Parys Haralson is a candidate to play on the strong side where he could anchor the line, rush the passer or jam the tight end. Likewise former high school all-American Daniel Brooks seems to have the size and speed to potentially star into that position. The Vols could then use Kevin Simon and Jason Mitchell at the inside linebacker positions. That would enable Tennessee to put its best athletes on the field and present SEC offenses with a scheme they don't often see as well as one that is easy to disguise blitzes and stunts. It also opens up second tier playing time for such capable players as Marvin Mitchell, Omar Gaither and incoming freshmen Robert Ayers and Jerrod Mayo who have the ability to help the Vols early. It would also allow them to take closer looks at Ovince Saint Preux and Jon Poe. By the way, Mitchell is another candidate to play the strong-side backer. At defensive ends Tennessee has a core of veterans in Jason Hall, Karlton Neal and Haralson as well as great upside players with less experience in Turk McBride and Jared Hostetter. Newcomers Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds could provide valuable depth at DE while earning early PT. Even a player like Tony McDaniel could play on the strong side if he doesn't factor into the nose tackle rotation and it's harder for of his height to play over the center. Although he's not a Tony Siragusa type, Jesse Mahelona is a run stopper with good lateral mobility and excellent strength. Justin Harrell, 6-4, 300, has the size, strength and agility to pose a lot of problems in the middle while oft injured redshirt sophomore LaRon Harris (6-21/2, 310) has the classic run-stopper dimensions. Suddenly a position (defensive tackle) that is woefully short of depth appears to be well fortified as does defensive end and linebacker. Tennessee could also use the Eagle 34 front that would place one of the Vols rugged inside linebackers — Simon, Poe or the Mitchells — on the center to blow a gap with their quickness or drop into zone blitz coverage. It's a difficult front for quarterbacks to read and evolves from Buddy Ryan's legendary 46 defense that the Chicago Bears deployed while going 15-1 in 1985 and winning the Super Bowl. The outside linebackers in this alignment will generally line up outside the man responsible for blocking them which allows them to better utilize their quickness to get to the passer. It's a scheme that is all about bringing heat from the edge. You might recall that the Rams' Kevin Greene led the NFL twice in sacks (1994 and 1996) and recorded a career best 133 sacks as a linebacker.
It's been 14 years since Tennessee changed it base defense from a 50 front to a 4-3 alignment, and it's hard to argue with the Vols' defensive success during that period, particularly over the last decade. They have used variations of the 3-4 and planned to rely on it heavily in 2002 before the opening game injury knocked Burnett out of action for the season.
The 4-3 will remain UT's defense of choice this season, but given the Vols personnel the 3-4 makes perfect sense.