The numbers dont completely paint the picture
The statistics, raw data of Tennessee's defensive transformation across the past 24 months, will illuminate far more than mere words.
Yet, listen to Volunteers' defensive coordinator talk about his group flying around on the field as an aggressive, free-spirited group and perhaps words can complement a story the way Tennessee's pass rush worked in concert this season with its secondary. The Vols improved in seven major defensive categories - scoring, first downs, yards, third/fourth-down conversions, sacks, red-zone trips and takeaways - from 2012 to 2014.
The results on the field are part of a transition that is an daily evolving process in what coaches label Tennessee's grander growth in the program.
"We've undergone a huge culture change on defense. They're already reinforcing the things that we set forth right from the beginning. I think the biggest thing is that they've seen results," said UT defensive coordinator John Jancek. "It's one thing to go out there and say, 'Hey, run to the ball this way. Tackle this way. Communicate this way. Use these terms.' And if they don't have success, they're kind of like 'What the heck?' If you look statistically at where we were at the year before we got here to now, it's night and day. I think the fact that they've been able to see tangible results has been huge.
"They buy into all that stuff. We have a good time on defense; we're kind of a wild bunch. We coach hard, we coach loud. And I think they're adopting that personality. It's fun to be around them."
When Tennessee's porous defense was assaulting all the wrong marks in the program's annals two years ago in the infamous Sal Sunseri disaster, it rarely was pleasant to be around the defense. The Vols allowed a school-worst 428 points, nearly 5,700 yards' offense and permitted 59 trips into their red zone.
Now as the Vols prepare for their Jan. 2, Taxslayer Bowl appearance in Jacksonville, Fla., against Iowa, they're a shell of the defense they once were --- and that's a good thing. The 287 points Tennessee allowed in its 12 regular season games is two-thirds that of the '12 squad's submissions; it's a strong 61 points --- five per game --- less than Jancek's first season at Tennessee under Butch Jones.
"I can say we have better communication. Coaches always tell us we need to communicate more. Now, I think we have guys who have bought into it instead of just guys who heard it and let it go in one ear and out the other," senior nickel back Justin Coleman explained. "Guys don't want to let each other down of course. You have freshmen who have come in and made big plays because they don't want to let the seniors down."
Big plays were virtually nonexistent two years ago --- unless it was one of the eight opponents who taxed the Vols for at least 37 points. Tennessee closed that season with just 17 sacks, and it only marginally improved during the transition year with 18. The Vols doubled up production this year, closing with 35 sacks --- their most in roughly a decade.
Even a year ago, Tennessee was laying the groundwork; whittling points per game, total yards and first downs.
"It starts with the standard and expectation, and you win championships playing championship defense," Jones told VolQuest.com. "Our coaches have done a great job of instilling the values in how we're going to play defense here at Tennessee. But it's a great tribute to our players of really taking the expectations and running with them. Taking great pride in performance.
"That's what it's all about it; individual accountability and that lends to collective accountability and playing with confidence and working exceptionally hard and with an effort and mentality of getting to the football. That's the way we want to play defense. It's about attacking the football and owning situational football as well."
This year in critical situations to get the defense off the field, the Vols were vastly improved. They shaved more than five points off their third- and fourth-down conversion rate from '12, down from 40.5 to 35.4; it was nearly a 10-point improvement from a year ago.
"We talked to the guys that there has been great improvement in two years and we want to take a lot of pride in that and in advancing the 'Orange Swarm' brand," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. "I think it's a combination of a lot of things. I think it's the kids' attitudes and eagerness and willingness to get better. And I think it's a byproduct of the continuity. When I came in here, those kids had been through like four different coaches in four years. The continuity of learning the system, knowing what to expect and then you can develop that football intelligence to take the next step. Really in our first year we were learning the system. Now I think we're taking a step forward and being more proactive. I think it's a combination of a lot of things."
Tennessee has recruited better players; Derek Barnett is a national impact player after setting the Vols' rookie record this season with 20.5 tackles for losses. Jalen Reeves-Maybin emerged as a consistent force at the second level of the defense. And cornerback Cam Sutton gives Tennessee a shutdown corner.
No player is older than a sophomore. That Vols' youth can be coupled with what every defensive coach stressed as the other critical component: staff continuity.
Every sophomore through senior player on Tennessee's current defense has had the same coordinator and position coach for the past two seasons. Seems simple until realizing Jancek is the program's fifth defensive coordinator since 2008 or that the Vols had more coaching turnover than a pastry shop.
"I think it says a lot. We all know each other, we've been with each other for a long time," Jancek said. "(Secondary coach Willie) Martinez and I have known each other for 20 years. We know what each other is thinking, and that's a huge value in developing a defense."
Martinez has cultivated a climate of competition in his defensive backfield: on the field, in the weight room, in the meeting room and even in the academic classroom.
"I've always said as coaches, you motivate but the last great motivator is competition," Martinez told VolQuest.com. "I think that when we got Emmanuel (Moseley) and D'Andre (Payne) in here in the spring, it gave us more depth, I thought the guys saw that and responded in a positive way.
"Then when the rest of those guys got here in the summertime, Evan Berry, Todd Kelly, Rashaan Gaulden, and maybe they didn't know everything that these other guys had learned, they could see their athleticism, physicality, their eagerness to be on the field. Creating that at every position is going to better the team."
Martinez tries to focus his group --- a trickle-down effect of Jones' program-wide mantra --- on becoming better daily in all facets of college life.
"Whether it's academics, we reward the guys with the best weeks, best days and recognize that. Then we put a lot more pressure on the guys who are not getting better academically. It's how you talk to somebody; it's in the weight room, being the best in there, being the best guy in academics, being the best guy in the Thornton Center," said Martinez, an SEC coaching veteran with previous stops at both Auburn and Georgia. "How you present yourself with your personal brand. The administration, as you're walking, I always tell the guys that every day you're a walking interview. You don't need a paper resume, really. It's how you talk to people, react to adversity and humble yourself when things are going really well says a lot about you.
"I think the guys have bought into that with each other, and I think the guys really like each other. You can see it: more and more in practice, you're seeing players coaching each other. Even though they're the same position, and they want to win the competition, they want to win it at their best. They don't want to win it by you failing at it because you don't know what to do. They don't let anybody quit. They don't let anybody go halfway. It's everything they do, really. Training room, treatment, it's brought up every single day."
The secondary meshed well together, Martinez explained, because veterans welcomed in the confident newcomers.
"We had some really good guys already in Brian (Randolph), LaDarrell (McNeil) and Justin Coleman. They didn't really know how it was like, but they saw the staff and how we do things and they kind of started to learn a little bit," Martinez said. "When you brought those guys that came in and were state champions, all of them in football or track or both, they came in and instead of hoping to win it's expecting to win. Expecting to do well today. Expectations just rose within themselves."
To the point that Vols' offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said Tennessee's defensive growth in talent had aided the Vols' offensive identity.
"We always talk about the No. 1 factor in improvement is competition. Whether that's competition for playing time at a position or competition for who you're playing against. I think it's always a benefit," Bajakian said. "The great receivers become great receivers because they go, day in and day out, in one-on-one drills against those great DBs. Same thing with the offensive linemen in pass pro. They're used to doing one-on-one pass pro against the defensive linemen practice after practice.
"You know, for our guys to be able to go and improve along with the defensive guys to get those reps day in and day out has been invaluable."
The process, of course, is ongoing. Tennessee gave up too many scores when opponents did reach the red zone. The Vols had established goals for more turnovers.
Progress, however, is undeniable.
"I think when we got here, they had had 17 sacks (in 2012) and I think this year we had 36 (35). So when you look at the improvements we've been able to make as an entire defense, I'm proud of everyone that's been associated," Jancek said. "You're really seeing them evolving in their knowledge of the game, knowledge of our system and what we do. Their technique has improved tremendously. And I think they're playing with a lot of confidence. They know what to do, know the expectations and they can make some plays."
What a wild concept.