Don't Overlook D Genius

During a season that Tennessee's offense can't find its rhyme or rhythm the focus has naturally been on finding an offensive minded head coach with a wide-open attack and a flair for the dramatic, but that might be a myopic maneuver that misses the broader vision.

There's a lot to be said for a defensive minded head coach like a Nick Saban ot Bob Stoops. Both schools rely on their defenses but also feature explosive offenses and both are in national title contention. It makes sense a defensive coach who knows how to scheme against offenses also knows the type of offensive system that will be most effective.

A defensive specialist will tend to hire his coordinator and let him do the job he was hired to do. He will sign off on game plans but it's more difficult to be fully immersed as both a head coach and offensive coordinator. A head coach who is a defensive specialist can have a greater influence without being as involved in the installation of a game plan. He can also more easily make adjustments on the fly

Watch Alabama this season and you'll detect Saban's fingerprints all over the Tide's philosophy and defensive game plan. The ferocity with which they come out of the gate is a manifestation of Saban's attack mentality. His offense, like it was at LSU, is designed to complement his defense. It is balanced, diverse, efficient, opportunistic and able to control tempo.

Since the arrival of Robert R. Neyland, Tennessee's football success has been built on outstanding defense and a strong kicking game. The Vols in 1939 were the last team to go through a season without allowing a score of any kind.

Tennessee's national championship team of 1998 came a year after Peyton Manning rewrote the school's passing records. The ‘98 Vols lost all-American running back for the season against Auburn. But it was a team built upon a rugged defense led by linebacker Al Wilson that just refused to lose.

One of the most popular UT teams ever was the 1985 SEC championship squad that finished No. 4 after swamping MIami in the Sugar Bowl 35-7. That team featured a tough defense that stepped up after star quarterback Tony Robinson was felled for the year with a knee injury against Bama. It featured a walk-on tailback, Jeff Powell, a fifth-year senior signal caller, Daryl Dickey, who had never started a game in his college career until that season in relief of Robinson, and a fifth year senior defensive back, Chris White, who led the nation with 10 interceptions in his only season as a starter.

The point is that success and great defense go hand-in-hand on The Hill. The reason that didn't happen this year is due to a new offense that staggered out off the starting line and never really found its form. With a modicum of support the Vols defense is good enough to win with this year, but it's not dominate. And at times it seems soft on the corners. The down four can't get consistent pressure although Dan Williams and Robert Ayers are having solid campaigns up front. At that it's much better than most expected.

This season is an aberration because the offense is so deplorable. Any reputable coach who comes in with an established offensive system will make a positive impact. Again there will be a transition period but not a painful one.

The Vols would be well advised to look at the best defense minds available among the head coaching field. It doesn't mean fans won't get the offense of their dreams. Bill Belichick is a defensive coach who's had some superb offenses. Ditto for Tony Dungy in Indy and Jeff Fisher of the Titans. Bob Stoops' defensive background hasn't prevented him from putting productive offenses on the field.

In some respects defensive coordinators who become head coaches understand what it takes to have a good offense and will hire someone to carry out that vision. They are less apt to tamper especially if its working. The commonality with the aforementioned coaches is that the offenses they put on the field rarely beat themselves with turnovers.

Another advantage of a head coach with a defensive background is the current BCS setup tends to favor defenses over offenses which are all reliant to some degree on timing. The extra prep time of four to five weeks is tilted toward defenses as well. It's much easier to customize a defensive game plan because it doesn't depend on timing or repetition. For an offense to change significantly it has to give up some timing. Offense is about action and execution. Defense is largely reaction and disruption.

If UT was to hire a head coach with an impressive body of work as a defensive specialist and a solid record as a head coach, the Vols could have a better chance of becoming competitive quickly as it will take longer to bring offensive talent up to SEC levels, and most of this year's starters will not return.

Among the names that deserve more than casual consideration are Gary Patterson of TCU, Bronco Mendenhall of BYU, Todd Graham of Tulsa, Mark Dantonio of Michigan State and Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.

The hall of champions as well as Tennessee football history show defense is more than a passing fancy.


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