KNOXVILLE — Saturday will be John Jancek’s sixth season opener as either a defensive coordinator or co-coordinator.
Many of the concerns he’ll have heading into his first game as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator are pretty typical: penalties, missed tackles, mistakes in assignments and communication errors.
With this Volunteers’ defense, though, Jancek is anxious to see its response when something goes wrong.
“That’s really my concern with this group in a first ball game,” he said following Wednesday afternoon’s practice. “Hey if something bad happens, maybe they get a big pass, or there’s a turnover, or they get a long run, or there’s something that happens to change the momentum on special teams — how are we going to respond as a defense?
“That’s what I’m probably paying most attention to.”
And who could blame Jancek? Tennessee’s defense has talked all offseason about erasing the memory of last season, when the Vols surrendered 471 yards per game — a program worst — and allowed every SEC opponent not named Kentucky to score 37 points. So far, though, even with a new staff and a new defensive system, it’s been only talk.
Saturday night against Austin Peay provides the chance to step on the field and actually make last fall a memory.
“I think it’s easier said than done for these guys,” Jancek said. “This will be the truest test that we’ve had up to this point. As coaches we’ve challenged them. We’ve tried to put them in competitive situations and expose them to as much adversity as we possibly could, but there’s nothing like game day, so we’ll find out Saturday.”
Simply not giving up that long touchdown would be a welcome sight for Tennessee. The Vols allowed nine plays of 60 or more yards last season, more than any team in the country. Eight of those, not surprisingly, ended in touchdowns.
The test certainly will get much more difficult when Tennessee visits Oregon, the top scoring offense in the country in 2012, in two weeks, but even if Austin Peay breaks a long one Saturday, players and fans alike may begin thinking, “Here we go again.”
“Every defense wants a goose egg,” linebacker A.J. Johnson said after Tuesday’s practice. “That’s the goal, but the big thing is us improving each day, improving each snap, improving each series, no busted plays. That’s the main thing: if you don’t have busted plays, you’re going to have a great day on defense.”
Multiple players have talked about a collective confidence level in Jancek’s system, which they’ve said is much simpler than the confusing complex one Sal Sunseri implemented unsuccessfully last season.
Jancek backed up his players’ words on Wednesday, saying they’d done well in terms of avoiding missed assignments and a bevy of mental mistakes.
“We threw a lot at them here in the last two or three days,” he said. “We’re painting a broad stroke with our defense. First ball game, don’t know what to expect, they did a lot of different things at different points in the season last year — they’ve done well.
“I’m proud of the things they’ve been able to accomplish.”
Now it’s about establishing a new defensive identity, a goal players have pointed to throughout the offseason.
“I think we’re going to be very sound on defense,” safety Brian Randolph said. “We’re not going to blow any coverages. I think we’re very prepared, so you’re going to see us flying to the ball and giving a lot of effort. Everybody we play against, we want to get 11 hats to the ball and make sure nothing breaks out of there. It’s all about the effort.”
Added fellow starting safety LaDarrell McNeil: “We’re really fired up. I mean, we’re really ready to show what we can do this year. I feel like we’re going to be fast and conditioned. You’ll see the orange defense swarming everywhere.”
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...