As Butch Jones continues his quest to find what he terms the "Alpha males" --- leaders --- of his first-ever Tennessee football team, Marlon Walls is showing character traits on and off the field that are helping Walls emerge as a potential team leader.
On Tuesday, following the Vols' seventh practice of Camp Butch, Walls touted both the benefits of defensive line coach Steve Stripling's no-nonsense approach and the poignant connection he felt with an East Tennessee teenager who passed away last week following a bout with an "aggressive, malignant" form of cancer that initiates in the bones.
"You've got to have thick skin. That's what it's going to take to play defense here," said Walls, a 6-foot-2, 285-pound redshirt senior. "Oh yeah, oh yeah [the Vols needed that style of coaching]. Coach Strip, I love him. He's the type he's going to get in your face. He's going to call you out and he's not going to sugarcoat anything. If you weren't playing to the standard that it takes to play Tennessee defense, he's going to call you out on it.
"Like I said, he called me out and I needed it. It opened up my eyes. I preached to the guys (Tuesday), narrow focus. We're going to focus on a few things and that will make us a better defense. They're the type, they're going to get after us and we love it."
Yet Walls, who clearly embraces being challenged on the football field, showed a remarkable sense of compassion in his recent dealings with the 14-year-old Katelyn Norman, who passed away last week. Walls and several of his Tennessee teammates who had returned to Knoxville for the last half of spring break connected with Norman and marched in a walkathon in Norman's honor.
"When I say it was amazing to walk in here, and that whole time I was thinking to myself 'What do you say to somebody who's in that situation who was 13, 14 years old?'," said Walls, who indicated that was his third or fourth trip to Children's Hospital as a representative of the UT football program and who credited God for putting this situation in front of the Vols. "As soon as I walked in, she was talking to me. She could barely talk, barely speak, but everything that came out of her mouth was positive.
"That little girl changed my life, and I mean that with the utmost respect. … Words can't explain how much I look up to that young lady."
Walls said he was joined by Daniel Hood, Dan McCullers and Carson Anderson, among others, at the walkathon but insisted that the players received no credit and that God again had granted them the opportunity.
With that inspiration in mind and the bitter taste of last season, Walls is soaking up the new Tennessee staff's coaching and teaching styles as the Vols transition back to the 4-3 defense coordinator John Jancek deploys.
"I definitely do think we were thinking too much and it definitely showed up. Last year we had the possibility to be a great defense, and that was our mindset. I know it don't show up, but that was our mindset," said the native of Olive Branch, Miss., just south of Memphis. "But I think we were thinking a little bit too much. That's why I like their approach; it's more straightforward."
Players' practice demeanor and habits are closely studied by Jones, who is in the installation phase of not only his on-field football program but its off-field brand as well.
"The way you practice really tells you the culture of your football program," Jones said. "The thing I like about our players is they are here and they are willing, but we still have a long way to go. But like I said earlier, it is brick by brick."
Walls is trying to show he can be a mason in the Vols' program moving forward under Jones.