But it seems that rebuilding the defense won't be as tall a task as reshaping the offense. Why? Two words: John Chavis.
Chavis has built a reputation as one of the nation's top defensive coordinators. His units usually rank among the top 20 in the nation, especially against the run. In his 11 seasons as UT's defensive leader, he's lost an entire front four several times, yet managed to put a competitive group on the field.
He has the confidence of coach Phillip Fulmer. He has the confidence of the media. Most importantly, he has the confidence of his players.
``Coach Chavis is one of the best in the business,'' said former defensive end Jason Hall. ``He coaches hard but he makes sure his players and other guys in the program understand he loves them and he cares about them.
``He says when he's not coaching you hard, you should worry. Guys on defense will play hard and well for coach Chavis as long as he's here.''
That was evident this past season, when the defense kept playing at a championship level while the offense was darn near inept – dropping passes, fumbling into the end zone, throwing errant passes.
Because of Chavis, the defense never caved.
``Coach Chavis, he's a great coach,'' Gaither said. ``He won't let up until the last day. We go into Kentucky week (with a 4-6 record), we're not going to a bowl game, and he's still coaching hard. That's one thing you have to love about him. He's going to make you the best possible player he can.
``He's coached a lot of great linebackers and I don't think it's any coincidence. I think he has a lot to do with that.''
Simon, the national high school defensive player of the year who led the Vols in tackles in 2003 and 2005, said Chavis was the main reason he signed with UT.
At 5-11 and about 210 pounds coming out of high school, Simon was a bit undersized for a college linebacker. But he felt he was a fit at Tennessee.
``Seeing guys like Al Wilson and Eddie Moore and Dominique Stevenson, guys like that come through this program and succeed, it drove me to say, `Well, if they can do it and they're not the biggest linebackers out there, I can do it, too. I'll be successful in this scheme,''' Simon said.
Gaither said Chavis doesn't get the national attention he deserves.
``He doesn't get enough credit for his defense,'' Gaither said. ``He's done a lot of great things with a lot of great players for a lot of years.
``I don't really think he wants (credit). That's the kind of guy he is. He's going to do his part and let someone else get the spotlight. That's one of the good things about him.''
Another good thing is Chavis' ability to motivate. The defense seldom has a letdown. Players play hard, or they don't play.
``Coach Chavis, if you've ever seen him or heard him on the practice field, you know he's an excellent motivator,'' Gaither said. ``He gets in your face and he's loud and he's jumping around and pushing guys. You get ready to go and get pumped up. I think he's a great coach as far as motivation is concerned.''
Chavis' enthusiasm seems infection. Gaither said the other defensive assistants – Dan Brooks, Steve Caldwell and Larry Slade – get after it as well.
``I think they took a page from coach Chavis' book,'' Gaither said.
The book next season will be filled with new starters, but not inexperienced players. The nucleus of the front four is solid with Harrell (if he returns), Turk McBride, Tony McDaniel, J.T. Mapu, Xavier Mitchell, Antonio Reynolds, Robert Ayers and Demonte Bolden.
It will be a challenge for Chavis, but he's dealt with challenges before. He's molded great talent and suspect talent. He's won with proven players and unproven players. And he's done it while developing a lasting relationship with his pupils.
``I love his passion and his love for the game,'' Simon said. ``Our relationship right now is closer than it's ever been. I can honestly say as a person, I love coach Chavis. He's going to be a friend for life.''