KNOXVILLE -- Ask any Tennessee defensive player or assistant coach, and they'd tell you the football Volunteers are far from a finished product.
Yet the Vols appeared satisfied with their progress heading into what they hope is a bounce-back year defensively.
Throughout the offseason, Tennessee's defense has tried to forget last season's debacle while learning a new system with new philosophies, and the unit knows it still can improve.
"I feel like we're moving," senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp said last week. "We're not there yet, but we're getting there. We're constantly grinding, trying to improve every day. We're steadily building on what we have. We have a good foundation laid, and the coaches are preaching and teaching effort, so I feel like we're moving in the right direction."
After registering the program's worst defensive season statistically in 2012, Tennessee's defense really can go in only one direction, and that's up.
That doesn't mean the coaches are sleeping worry-free every night.
According to one assistant, the staff's biggest concerns are the defensive front, particularly its ability to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks and disrupt offenses, and the consistency of the open-field tackling. Coaches have been encouraged by the performance of a thin linebacking unit and have confidence in the secondary, even though freshman cornerback Cam Sutton is being tossed into the fire.
Junior Jordan Williams appears to have made a late push to start at defensive end, where the Vols will be short senior Jacques Smith and freshman Corey Vereen -- defensive coordinator John Jancek said the two injured players were his top pass rushers -- for some or all of the opening month of the season.
"Out of the D-linemen, he's probably been the most impressive," Jancek said after Monday night's practice. "He's shown the most improvement. We're looking for pass rush. We have got to be able to generate some form of pressure. We have to be able to disrupt the quarterback without blitzing every single time, so that's our challenge.
"That's where Jordan has really improved and shown he's made great strides in that area."
Schematically, Jancek said he's comfortable with what Tennessee's done during preseason practice
"We've been going against our offense a lot," safety Brian Randolph said, "but we also have some periods in there where we go against a look team to simulate what other teams are going to do because they may have different offenses. I believe we're pretty much accustomed to every type of offense out there. We've got a lot of plays we can go to.
"When we get to a game, we're going to cut down on the plays so we can hone in on the plays we're going to run that week, so I believe we've got everything covered."
After spring practice, Jancek estimated he had installed 70 to 80 percent of his defense, and players said the coaches haven't inundated them with more plays or ratcheted up the pace of the installation.
"All the stuff we put in in the spring, we put it back in now and we put in a little more stuff," linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "From the spring, we already knew what we had to get done and all the plays. We put in a little more stuff now, but it ain't that much."
"For me, we're on schedule," Jancek said. "We're working down our checklist of things we need to get accomplished. We're on schedule and ready to hopefully peak here in the first week."
Players have welcomed the simpler system after the complexity of former coordinator Sal Sunseri's defense overloaded them mentally and caused confusion.
"We're very comfortable [with this defense]," Sapp said. "You can tell by the way guys are out there making calls and communicating with each other. Everybody's confident in what they're doing."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...