Heading into tonight's game with Alabama (7:45 kickoff at Neyland Stadium), Tennessee ranks fifth among league programs in scoring defense, fifth in pass defense and second in total defense. The improvement from 2007 to 2008 can be summed up in one sentence: The Vols are playing fast again.
Alabama's offense has undergone a similar transformation. Last fall it was a pass-oriented team with a weak rushing attack. This fall the Tide has the SEC's finest ground game. Thus, tonight's confrontation could come down to this: Can Tennessee's speed on defense offset Bama's power on offense?
That remains to be seen, of course, but this much is certain: The Vols' 2008 defense has a much better chance to contain the Tide than the Vols' 2007 defense would have had. Here's why:
Having faster athletes enables Tennessee to put more pressure on opposing passers and cover more ground in pursuit of opposing rushers. Whereas the '07 Vols recorded just 24 sacks in 14 games, the '08 Vols registered five sacks in one game last weekend against Mississippi State. Speed off the edge is the key.
Chavis says the reason for the improved defensive end play is "getting more and more speed out there. We lost two seniors (Xavier Mitchell, Antonio Reynolds) but we got faster at the position."
"A big part of it is that our two first-year starters (Ayers, Brown) have really done a tremendous job," Chavis said, "and we're getting the young guys (Walker, Martin) in there."
The coordinator insists that last year's defense was an aberration, a mere blip on the radar screen. This year's defense is more of a typical UT defense ... fast, in other words.
"The biggest thing is that we're putting more speed on the field," Chavis said. "We're getting back to the point where we're accustomed to being.
"When we started this thing 14 or 15 years ago, we built our philosophy around speed. You certainly had to have it. Not that we're looking to take credit for anything but we were one of the first people in the league to take a 210-pound linebacker and convert him into a speed-rush end. Since then, I think everybody in the league has gone in that direction in terms of the success we had with Leonard Little."
Although speed is a tremendous benefit on the pass rush, it is just as valuable in stopping the ground game. That's why the '08 defense also is significantly better than the '07 defense against the run.
"Our whole philosophy hasn't changed from Day 1: We're going to stop the run with numbers," Chavis said. "That means we're going to find ways to get different people in the box and we want to rush the passer with speed. When we're doing that, we're at our best.
"You may give up a little in the run game by having that speed out there but we're going to get enough numbers in the box to stop the run. It's not by accident. If you look back at last year, that was a different standard. We were not what we were accustomed to being.
"We're getting back to where we've been at Tennessee. I think we're getting very close right now. But when we've been at our best we've had speed on the edge."