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April 19, 2013
Vols' D: Something to prove
The statistics speak for themselves - 35.7 points allowed per game; 188.9 yards rushing allowed per game; 282.5 yards passing allowed per game; 471.4 yards given up per game; 5,657 yards of total offense from opposing teams.
Needless to say, Tennessee's defense couldn't have been much worse in 2012.
That's why the chip on the shoulder of this year's defense - the 'Team 117,' 'Orange Swarm' version - couldn't be much bigger.
These Vols are out to change that image, to erase that memory. That starts, at least in part, with Saturday's Orange & White Game inside Neyland Stadium, scheduled for a 2 p.m. start time. Admission is free.
Forget about one-and-done Sal Sunseri's 3-4 front and get a good look at new defensive coordinator John Jancek's more traditional, more doable 4-3 scheme.
"We can put last year behind us," safety Byron Moore said this week. "We just focus on moving forward with Team 117 and the 'Orange Swarm.'
"We're looking to show Saturday to the fans that come out a little glimpse of what our 'Orange Swarm' is going to look like this year."
"The defensive backs," fellow safety LaDarrell McNeil said, "we really want to prove to everyone that we've gotten better."
There's plenty to prove.
Tennessee fans remember all too well what Sunseri's defense looked like in 2012, during Derek Dooley's final season in Knoxville.
Florida had a 75-yard touchdown run and a 75-yard touchdown pass in the second half of the Gators' come-from-behind 37-20 win last September, outscoring the Vols 27-6 in the second half.
Akron had a 70-yard touchdown run the following week. Then it was Georgia's turn, scoring on plays of 51, 72 and 75 yards in a 51-44 win in Athens.
Troy scored on touchdown passes of 51 and 67 yards in November, a 55-48 loss where the two team's combined for a record-breaking 1,439 total combined yards.
Missouri's Kendial Lawrence had a 77-yard touchdown run in the Tigers' 51-48 win the next week. The week after that, Vanderbilt used a 77-yard touchdown pass to go up 41-10 in the fourth quarter in Nashville.
But that's long been forgotten for Moore & Co. after 14 of 15 spring practices under new head coach Butch Jones and his staff.
Saturday, for the first time, they'll get a chance to show the fans.
"You're going to see a defense that plays with more effort than anybody else in the country," Moore said, "better tackling, better swarming around.
"Just a lot of high energy from the sideline, on the field, guys chest bumping, guys celebrating with each other. Just one big brotherhood."
Jancek's resume echos those sentiments.
NEW COACH, NEW SCHEME, NEW STYLE
At Cincinnati in 2011 and 2012, Jancek's Bearcat defense was inside the top 20 in scoring defense. They led the country in tackles for loss (8.62 per game) and were second in sacks (3.42 per game) in 2011.
McNeil said spring camp under Jancek and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez has changed his game.
"My intelligence of the game and just my strength," the sophomore from Dallas explained, "which is just work ethic.
"I believe my work ethic gained a lot and my intelligence for the game. I learned a lot from coach Martinez and coach Jancek."
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
Those improvements start with the details, which Jones has sold since day one.
"Just the basics," McNeil said, "getting the technique and the form and stuff, that helps me out a lot."
Nothing is more basic than the daily effort the Vols are expected to generate.
"They're not going to let you take no days off," Moore said. "They don't care if you're a scholarship (player) or a walk-on, they're going to coach you the same. They're going to demand excellence everyday and high energy, tempo.
"They're all about the small details. They say the great ones are wired differently, and they all want us to be great. We've just got to keep buying in and keep believing what they're telling us."
Tennessee was 1-4 in games decided by 10 points or less in 2012, with opponents averaging 45.8 points per game in those losses.
That's where the attention to detail --- never taking a play off, both mentally and physically --- has hit home this spring.
"Most games, its going to come down to five or six plays that make the difference between winning and losing," Moore said. "If we can play consistent for the whole game, and not have as many mistakes as the other team, we can come out with more wins."
In doing that, less is more.
"I think this defensive staff coming in, simplifying the defense for us, is going to help us a lot," Moore said. "We're not having to think so much out there."
Now it's up the 'Orange Swarm' to go out and prove they're not the same defense from a year ago, starting Saturday in front of the fans for the first time since the dreadful 2012 season.
"It's up to us to go out there and play with effort and strain to the ball," Moore said, "because you can't teach that, that's all on us."
It's a premiere of sorts for the Vols' defense.
"Coach Jones said it's going to be a show," McNeil said, "so we're expecting a big stage."