The Wilcox way

Your best linebackers are watching practice from the sidelines due to assorted injuries. Your two most experienced defensive backs left early for the NFL. Your depth at defensive tackle is perilously thin.

Oh, yeah ... and you're replacing the legendary Monte Kiffin.

Other than that, Justin Wilcox's debut as Tennessee's defensive coordinator shapes up as a walk in the park.

Clearly inheriting a situation fraught with obstacles, the new overseer of the Vol stop unit is surprisingly philosophical ... even about the prospect of succeeding a coaching legend.

"When you step into a program like this, you're always going to follow somebody good," Wilcox said this week. "Monte Kiffin is probably as well-respected a defensive coach as there is in the history of football. So, no, I'm not Monte Kiffin. I'm not trying to be Monte Kiffin.

"I'm just going to do the best job I can do preparing our team and preparing our coaches. For me to step in here and try to be something I'm not ... that wouldn't work for anybody."

There's no reason to mimic Monte because the Wilcox way has proved to be highly successful. Coordinating the Boise State defense the past four years, he helped the Broncos go 49-4. They led the Western Athletic Conference in scoring defense and total defense all four years. They ranked third nationally in scoring defense (12.6 points per game) in 2008 and 14th nationally in 2009. They also were No. 14 in total defense and No. 3 in turnover margin last fall.

Wilcox's last two years at Boise saw the Broncos go 26-1, capped by a perfect 14-0 record last season.

"I loved it at Boise," he said. "I will always love those people and that place."

So, why would a guy leave a program that went 26-1 the past two years for a program that was 12-13 during the same span?

"I'm with great people here, and the tradition here at Tennessee and the SEC is something that's unmatched," Wilcox said. "I'm fortunate, humbled and excited to be here and work with these guys. I couldn't be happier with the guys we've got here."

Maybe, but "the guys" aren't exactly an imposing bunch. Except for defensive end, where 2009 starters Chris Walker and Ben Martin return, Tennessee's defense has been gutted since last fall. Many of the key players are gone. Most of the few who remain are injured. Still, Wilcox likes what he has seen through the first six spring workouts.

"The guys have come out and worked very hard," he said. "It's new for them, as far as some of the stuff we're doing. We've got a lot of young guys taking reps that maybe they didn't take last year. Everybody's getting used to the structure of practice, the structure of the defense, how we do things and what the expectations are. We're pleased with the work ethic and those types of things but we've definitely got a long way to go."

Wilcox has been shuffling his personnel in an attempt to plug some of the most glaring holes. Steven Fowlkes, though undersized at 6-5 and 240 pounds, has moved from end to tackle. Other moves may be forthcoming as the coordinator attempts to get the right people in the right spots.

"That's a huge part of spring ball," he said. "But a lot of it goes back to putting the foundation of what the expectations are in practice - how we act, how we prepare, getting the defense in. We'll make decisions on personnel down the road.

"Right now the depth chart is in constant motion, so there really isn't one. Obviously, there are guys who have played here in the past and earned reps but, as far as we're concerned, spring football is an interview for those guys."


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