By Alex Norman
4th and 14…
It was the down and distance that many Vols fans have forever burned into their psyche.
Making a stop on 4th and 14 against the Florida Gators last September not only would have snapped Tennessee’s 10 game losing streak to their rivals, but would have given the Vols the SEC East title and a trip to Atlanta.
This year the Vols defense is hoping when the big play comes around, they’ll be able to make it.
“If we stay together and play as one… keep that bond, that closeness… no one can beat us,” said Tennessee defensive back Malik Foreman. “We are too talented. If we stay together, no one can beat us.”
“We have a defensive line that is athletic, and that shows in how well you play in the back end,” said Tennessee defensive backs coach Willie Martinez. “If they play well it gives us an opportunity… and we’ll have a good chance of being special.”
One difference on this year’s defense as opposed to Tennessee defenses of the recent past is that there is finally depth to go with the talent. All across the defense, from tackles and ends, to linebackers and cornerbacks and safeties, there are players ready to step in when called upon.
“We have the perfect combination of veterans and young guys coming in,” said Tennessee linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr., now a sophomore. “Guys got a lot of experience last year, and that will help our defense be great overall.”
“I think we are getting more talented guys every year,” said Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett, who has accounted for a combined 20 sacks over the past two seasons. “Everyone has to understand their role and not do too much. Everyone needs to know their responsibility… if we do that we will have a great defense.”
The big change for the Vols this off-season has been at the top of the defensive food chain. Penn State’s Bob Shoop takes over for John Jancek as coordinator. Shoop is no stranger to the SEC, having served in the same role at Vanderbilt from 2011-2013.
“Both (Jancek and Shoop) are great defensive coordinators but Shoop is a little more aggressive,” said Barnett. “(Shoop) is confident in what he does… he believes in his ball players and everyone has bought into that.”
“He (Shoop) coaches the safeties a little bit and ultimately he is the leader of our defense,” said Tennessee safety Todd Kelly Jr., entering his third year in the program out of Webb School. “He let us know three things that we needed to do. We needed to play as a team, play with toughness and play with passion. If we can put those three things together we can have a successful season on the defensive end.”
“I don’t like statistics… you know, can we be number one in the country,” said Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. “I want us to get our offense 3-4 more possessions a game. Can we get off the field on 3rd down? Can we put our team in position to win? Regardless of the stats, if we give our offense 3-4 more possessions, regardless of where we stand statistically, we will be in position to win a lot of games.”