February 24, 2009

Defensive storylines for spring camp

A healthy portion of the almost-palpable buzz that enveloped the hiring of Lane Kiffin as Tennessee's football coach nearly three months ago was, in part, a byproduct of the imminent arrival of Kiffin's father, defensive visionary Monte Kiffin.

And while the younger Kiffin hasn't lacked for personality or the ability to captivate a crowd, Monte Kiffin likewise has generated an almost mythic persona. He speaks with a rising and falling crescendo, a veritable football evangelist sent to help revive championship football at Tennessee.

Now, it's less than two weeks until the elder Kiffin begins to implement his famed "Tampa 2" defense in Knoxville. While the various modifications on the defense's moniker can be worked out -- "Tennessee 2," "Rocky Top 2" and "Power T 2" anyone? -- later, here are some areas the Vols most need to address during the 15-practice, five-and-a-half-week spring practice that opens March 10.

1. Defensive tackle: Who's going to clog the middle for Tennessee? Who can step up during spring practice to help establish depth? Seeing Dan Williams return for a final campaign is huge, regardless of whether or not Williams received a favorable early-entry grade for the NFL Draft. Losing two senior tackles, Demonte Bolden and Walter Fisher is bothersome enough; losing all three could have been potentially disastrous. And, quite frankly, Williams was the team's most consistent performer, showing an ability to clog the middle and surprising agility to chase down ballcarriers in the backfield. Now he needs help. There's talk Wes Brown could slide inside some, much the way Robert Ayers did at times during his career. Donald Langley has been a touted prospect and needs to generate the type of spring that Williams did a couple of years ago that served as a precursor to Williams' value up front.
Further, Montori Hughes needs to seize the opportunity in front of him with his ability to be in school as a mid-termer. Chase Nelson is running out of time to be a viable contributor, and Nelson must continue his recovery from a nasty injury suffered last fall. Victor Thomas showed some signs at times last season, but clearly Tennessee needs more and more consistent effort from Thomas. For senior journeyman Andre Mathis, who ended up having to play some snaps the last month of the season, it's clearly now or never.

There are more players who could become factors, and it will be interesting to see where highly-touted guys like Marlon Walls, once he gets here, and Rae Sykes, already here, settle in.

2. Who steps up at linebacker? Who's in the middle?: With seemingly little fanfare, gritty senior Ellix Wilson emerged as Tennessee's most consistent linebacker last season and turned in an admirable season as a starter. But it was Wilson's first and last as a full-time starter, and now who mans the middle in Tennessee's defense? Chris Donald arrived at Tennessee with loads of hype and potential. He's mostly been a special teams player, but he did look good during the Vols' junior varsity game against Hargrave last November. Perhaps that provided Donald with a confidence-boost going into the offseason. And one has to wonder if the coaching change doesn't give Donald a different outlook and a legitimate chance.

Tennessee graduated three senior linebackers from last year's stingy defense, including playmaker Nevin McKenzie and simply solid Adam Myers-White. Who emerges alongside Rico McCoy, who certainly has the talent to flourish in Kiffin’s defense. Savion Frazier and Lamarcus Thompson need to take big steps after both played sporadically last season. Nick Reveiz played more last season than perhaps anyone -- except Reveiz -- expected. Can he translate into Kiffin's system? Where does Herman Lathers fit? Lathers was impressive during camp last fall but illness forced Lathers to the sideline. Watch him as someone who could surprise this spring.
Remember, Rod Wilks might have been Tennessee's most impressive freshman last year, his sheer physicality forcing coaches to look at him at receiver, then safety and finally at linebacker. Finishing his first full year in college, Wilks should have an even better frame and idea of how to help.
And Nigel Mitchell-Thornton enrolled early and certainly benefits from getting an immediate opportunity to go through spring camp and learn on the ground floor during Kiffin's installation.

3. Can Morley and Vinson hold off the newcomers?: It might sound ridiculous considering that Brent Vinson and Demetrice Morley have played in a combined 57 games in Tennessee uniforms, but it's a critical spring for them. Vinson had to win an 11th-hour academic appeal to earn reinstatement to the team earlier this year, and Morley, allegedly, battled classroom consistencies as well as on-the-field ups and downs last fall. This coaching staff, despite limited contact with players or media, has made it clear that everyone starts at zero. Eric Berry has the only guaranteed starting spot, according to Lane Kiffin, and Dennis Rogan is a tireless worker. Vinson and Morley better capitalize now before prized recruits Darren Myles Jr. and Janzen Jackson make their ways to Knoxville.

4. Can Ben Martin and Chris Walker continue to emerge? Does Gerald Williams play end or get another shot at linebacker?: Walker, a model student-athlete who certainly commands the presence to be a locker room leader and eventual team captain, at times showed fantastic strides last season. He also played through a tough back injury. Walker's three quarterback sacks were second-best on the team, and it's been well-documented that he's a tireless worker. Similarly, Martin showed strides last year -- especially when he played with better, lower pad leverage. The sleek, powerful Martin tallied 18 tackles, but he appeared to get progressively better throughout the season. He needs to be a force both in stopping the run and rushing the passer. Martin had five quarterback hurries and forced a fumble last season.
Also, Williams never seemed to get a consistent shot at linebacker; he selflessly moved to play with a hand in the dirt when needed, but Williams didn't hide the fact that linebacker is his preferred spot. Where will he stand with the new coaches? Williams was recently spotted in the complex after a workout, and while he appeared in good shape with added strength, he didn't appear to have bulked up to move permanently up front.

Obviously, there are more things that will develop as Kiffin installs his defense. But that installation is less than two weeks away, and it promises to be one of the most intriguing aspects of spring camp.

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