April 10, 2013

'Power of position' key point on Vols' DL

Nothing, it seems, is immune to Butch Jones' fastidious attention to detail within the Tennessee football program. Including the artificial sounds that Jones manufactured for Tuesday's practice and promised would be more nettlesome on Thursday.

Remove the white noise, and Jones is focused on his team's on-field improvement --- a key component of which is the Vols' defensive line. So Jones occasionally tosses the group a proverbial big-orange bone in the form of quarterback who isn't off-limits to the defender who might get through Tennessee's touted offensive line and harass his teammate.

Might Jones afford that same freedom to a defense with a handful of proven pass-rushers up front?

"Depends on the situation," said Jones, with a grin that told everything and nothing as he left the rudimentary stage Tuesday from which he addresses reporters following his team's practices.

Jacques Smith, Daniel Hood, Daniel McCullers and Marlon Walls have garnered the majority of first-team reps up front in coordinator John Jancek's 4-3 system, but there are signs the Vols are building some depth behind them.

Don't confuse depth, Jones said, with a drop-off once Jones gets his precedent established in the program.

"We call it power of the position. No matter who's playing, the standard and expectation doesn't change in those position groups," Jones explained. "If Jacques Smith or Dan McCullers is out, the next man in, the same expectation is by the power of the position. That's why those individuals across the board and not just the defensive line need to step up and get better."

Senior Corey Miller, who one year ago missed spring ball and has been a nomad along the defensive front throughout his career since he signed with much acclaim in 2009, has flourished of late --- particularly in third-down sets. Trevarris Saulsberry has gotten some interior work at one tackle spot, and redshirt freshman Danny O'Brien has begun to perform with more consistency.

"I'll never be one to say that it is just off my general technique or anything like that," said Miller, the former prep All-American from Byrnes (S.C.) High School. "It is all about my teammates. These guys free me up all the time. I am just happy that they give me opportunities and I would do the same for them."

What both Miller and Saulsberry won't do, they said, is let up on a teammate who just happens to play quarterback if they ever break through on one of those instances in which Jones has unprotected his signal-caller.

"By any means, get there," said Miller, who has said he's played both the traditional end and 'Leo' position in Jancek's defense. "It's an opportunity in practice to get somebody. I'm taking it, every time [if he comes free on a hit]."

Added Saulsberry, "I was licking my chops. I'm trying to get back there as fast as I can. It doesn't happen many times, so you have to make the best of that opportunity."

Tennessee's offensive linemen said they, too, have noticed a difference in their defensive counterparts this spring.

"Oh, most definitely they're also improving," said junior guard Marcus Jackson, who's locked in a battle with Alex Bullard to be the Vols' fifth starting offensive lineman. "It kind of goes like we have a good day, they have a good day. Keep going back and forth.

"We noticed it [that the defense is playing faster], but we're playing faster, too."

Saulsberry listed several of his teammates that he's battled with this spring for reps up front, but the sophomore from Gainesville, Fla., wasn't satisfied to approach camp as a chance to carve just any small role.

"It's a rough battle," Saulsberry said. "I moved from end [in the former 3-4 system the Vols used in 2012] down to three-technique, so I'm having to battle with big Dan (McCullers), Gregory Clark, Danny O'Brien, all of them.

"It's a struggle, but I'm pushing to excel in what I'm doing. And I'm trying to get that starting position."

Jones' challenge to the group is to continue to elevate their play.

"It's a work in progress; we still have individuals that need to step up," Jones said. "And again, there needs to be a sense of urgency. How do you respond? Now you're sore. Now you're tired. Now you're getting in and you're getting three and four treatments a day. You're winning in the classroom. And then you're playing with the effort, energy and physicality we expect and demand in our football program.

"This is when you improve and get better right now. Some individuals will really, really improve. And some will step back."

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