Lighter load for linebackers

This is a pretty good time to be a Tennessee linebacker, especially compared to one year ago.

The Vols' 2007 front four was so weak that it rarely kept opposing blockers off of the linebackers. Meanwhile, the Vols' 2007 secondary was so young that the linebackers couldn't take any risks, lest they put added pressure on the young DBs.

One year later, however, the landscape has changed. Except for an 11-minute lapse in Game 1 at UCLA, the front four has been clogging the middle on run plays and the secondary has been picking off passes at a record clip.

Naturally, when the big guys on the front line and the little guys on the back line are playing well, the linebackers can focus on flying to the football and making plays. That helps explain why, if you throw out the fourth quarter at UCLA, Tennessee has allowed just six points in the other seven quarters.

No one is happier about the improved play of Tennessee's front four and secondary than weakside linebacker Rico McCoy. He says both groups are making his job a lot easier in 2008 than it was in '07.

"The secondary is better than last year. There's no rookies back there this year," he said. "And the D-line played great against UAB. All of the run plays they had went outside because the D-line was clogging up the middle. The D-line did a heck of a job. I'm impressed."

Ironically, UAB's biggest gains generally occurred when quarterback Joe Webb set sail on quarterback draws and scrambles.

"It was a funny situation," McCoy recalled. "We had D-ends and D-tackles pushing their way into the backfield, then coming off their blocks to help play the draw, too. It was almost like they were doing what they were supposed to do TOO well, you know? They were bull-rushing and driving 'em (blockers) right past the quarterback."

Although Tennessee's defensive tackles are bigger and stronger than a year ago, the biggest difference in them appears to be mental, rather than physical.

"That D-line is playing ball right now," McCoy said. "Those defensive tackles – Dan Williams, Demonte Bolden and Walter Fisher – have nasty attitudes, and I love it. You can see it in their play."

Meanwhile, a more seasoned secondary has helped Tennessee record half as many interceptions in the first two games this fall (7) as it had all of last fall (14). Moreover, the play of the defensive backfield is so much better than a year ago that it is allowing UT's linebackers to be more aggressive and take more chances.

"It does," McCoy said. "When you've got guys who can make up for stuff, you don't have to be as careful."

Although defensive coordinator John Chavis concedes that the Vols are improved in both the front line and back line, he isn't ready to do any celebratory cartwheels just yet.

"I think we are a lot better in the secondary and we are playing better upfront than we were this time a year ago," he said. "But we're not we're anywhere near where we need to be as a defensive football team."

Odds are, the Vols will find out how close they are to being where they need to be this Saturday against fourth-ranked Florida.

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