Chavis optimistic about run defense

No one was more disappointed with Tennessee's performance in the Outback Bowl than defensive coordinator John Chavis. With each time-consuming carry by Penn State running back Tony Hunt, you could almost see the hair stand on Chavis' neck.

The image of Hunt grinding out a 5-minute, 42-second drive in the fourth quarter, the image of Tennessee's defensive line getting pounded, the image of those Nittany Lions stuffing it down UT's throat is still fresh on Chavis' mind.

That's why a productive spring was so important to Chavis.

He wants to get the gritty taste of defeat out of his mouth. And the best way to do that was to separate the mice from the men during spring practice. Chavis hopes he found enough men.

``We felt like we needed to become more physical,'' Chavis said after his defense allowed almost 147 rushing yards per game, 65 yards per game more than in 2005.

``This was one of the most physical springs we've had in my tenure here.''

Chavis was a bit concerned his defense might get soft going against Tennessee's no-huddle, zone-blocking scheme during the spring. That didn't happen because the Vols, almost every day, used what they called board drills – an offensive lineman going one-on-one against a defensive lineman. It didn't happen because the Vols did more seven-on-seven work than in previous years.

``If you do that enough, you're going to become more physical,'' Chavis said.

That was missing from Tennessee's team a year ago, on both sides of the ball.

``It's all about winning championships at Tennessee and that's what our focus is,'' Chavis said. ``To win a championship in this league, or any league, you have to be able to run the football and stop the run.

``We need to get back to doing that really well.''

Tennessee didn't stop Air Force from running. The Cadets racked up 281 yards. The Vols didn't stop Florida from running. The Gators converted several key short-yardage runs with Tim Tebow at quarterback.

Georgia ran for 145 yards. South Carolina got 165. LSU pounded out 231. Arkansas had 259. Penn State had 183.

All but three teams – California, Memphis and Alabama – had over 100 rushing yards against Tennessee.

In 2005, only two teams – Georgia and Memphis – had over 100 rushing yards.

Not only were the run-defense totals weak, so was the pass rush. The Vols had just 17 sacks compared to 33 in 2005. Defensive linemen had eight sacks. Losing Justin Harrell after three games due to injury was a major blow.

``We've got to get those totals back up,'' Chavis said.

Chavis said he sees signs of an improved pass rush. He said Xavier Mitchell, who had four sacks last year, is an ``outstanding player,'' and Antonio Reynolds had a ``tremendous'' spring.

``Wes Brown plays with great technique and fundamentals, and we've got some exciting guys inside,'' Chavis said.

Chavis is excited about defensive tackles J.T. Mapu, Dan Williams and Demonte Bolden. He said they're SEC ready. Mapu, a senior, hopes to return to the form he displayed before leaving on a two-year mission. Williams and Bolden have ability. Walter Fisher has been slowed by injury (shoulder surgery). Chase Nelson is starting to look like an SEC player, Chavis said.

Chavis loves his linebackers: Jerod Mayo, Ryan Karl, Rico McCoy, Adam Meyers-White, Ellix Wilson. That's one reason he looked long and hard at a 3-4 alignment in the spring. UT has more quality linebackers than linemen.

``The thing the 3-4 gives you is an opportunity to bring pressure from different angles, different looks,'' Chavis said. ``We like that package. We keep it polished. Our whole philosophy is to get the 11 best players on the field.''

Chavis admitted he was surprised at the progress made in the secondary, particularly by safety Jarod Parrish and cornerback Marsalous Johnson. Both appeared to win starting jobs.

Jonathan Hefney is the best safety in the SEC, if not the nation.

``When you start looking at the safeties we've had, there's no doubt – and I'm not big on making comparisons – he's the best safety we've had at Tennessee since (All-American) Dale Carter,'' Chavis said. ``He has the ability to cover one-on-one. He can tackle. And he's physical for his size (5-9, 185).''

Chavis said going against the no-huddle in practice benefited the defense.

``You have to condition yourself mentally and physically,'' Chavis said. ``It's an uptempo style, but they can change the tempo. They can go fast and they can go slow. They can control some of the things that happen at the line of scrimmage.

``The thing I'm excited about is we got a chance to work against it in the spring and we'll be better prepared when we see it from other teams.''

Speaking of other teams, the Vols won't face that many strong running teams. Arkansas has the best run game and best pair of running backs. Georgia has two fine backs but an average line. Alabama has a solid line but unproven, though talented, backs. Florida is average at running back. Kentucky has a dynamic runner but a mediocre line.

California lost its best running back, Marshawn Lynch. Tennessee should be able to contain the running games of Southern Miss, Arkansas State, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette and Vanderbilt.

Watch for Tennessee to cut about 30 yards per game off last year's run-defense numbers. That should allow the Vols to jump back into the championship hunt.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories