By Jimmy Hyams
Coaches who have worked for Nick Saban talk about how complex his defense is.
They’ve said it takes two years to learn the scheme, the nuances, the intricacies.
But that’s not the impression you get from Tennessee’s defensive players. They’ve complimented the coaching staff on making them smarter and teaching them how to defend.
First-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt said he has taught the team five concepts and coaches will pick and chose from those concepts the best plan of attack based on what the players know and the opponent.
So how will a defense that ranked among the worst in school history last year respond in the season opener against an explosive West Virginia passing attack, led by preseason All-American quarterback Will Grier (3,490 passing yards, 34 touchdowns in basically10 games last year)?
No one knows for sure. But a sure bet is the Vols will be more aggressive and better coached on defense than a year ago, according to players.
The coaching staff hopes so.
“I think at first when you come in,’’ said UT co-defensive coordinator Chris Rumph, “it (scheme) can be intimidating because you’re looking at the entire thing.
“It’s like a pie. You just take it slice by slice and take your time to eat it. Eventually you’ll eat the entire pie. But if you try to eat the entire thing (at once), you’ll make a mess.’’
Which piece of the pie UT uses against West Virginia – and other opponents – could vary from week to week.
“It all depends on the team you’re playing,’’ Rumph said, “the situation, the personnel, what they like to line up in and who they have on the field.
“We’re going to try to match it as best as possible. A lot of times it’s, `How can I get my best players on the field?’ because if you’ve got a defensive front or a defense that has got your two best guys on the sideline, that’s not doing you any good.
“So we’ll mix and match and try to come up with the best combination to get the best people on the field and get the best defense possible.’’
Rumph said he’s comfortable coaching a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.
“I don’t want to sound conceited, like I’m some super coach,’’ Rumph said, “but at Florida, we were a four-man, at Alabama, we were a three-man, at Texas, three-man. At Clemson we were a four-man and when I first got started at Memphis, we were a three-man. So I’ve been in and out.’’
What scheme is best at stopping the run?
“It depends on your talent and it depends on what the other team is doing,’’ Rumph said. “So we’ll be multiple in our fronts and the things we do.’’
Rumph believes UT players have gained confidence in the defensive scheme.
“It’s tremendous,’’ he said. “It’s almost like you’re looking in the mirror every day saying, `I’m not losing any weight,’ and all the sudden, someone looks at you and says, `Look at you, you’ve lost a lot of weight.’
“Then you see a before-and-after picture and say, `Man, I have lost some weight.’’’
At outside linebacker, Rumph said he’s looking for “a guy that’s multiple,’’ that can over a wide receiver, play zone, match up against a tight end or rush the passer.
Rumph said UT is teaching its outside linebackers both weakside and strongside positions so they are interchangeable.
“You may be a Sam but the Jack goes out,’’ Rumph said. “The Sam may be better than the second Jack. But if you pigeon hole him as a Sam, then he can’t go over there. So now instead of having your best people on the field, he’s on the sideline.
“So we’ll sort of cross train them so we can get the best people on the field.’’
What is Rumph looking for on defense?
“First thing is, we got to be smart,’’ he said. “We can’t have stupid penalties. We can’t go out there and act like a bunch of renegades. We got to be smart. We got to play with toughness. And we got to play with great effort.’’
Whether that will be enough against 10-point favorite West Virginia remains to be seen.
Kickoff for the season opener is 3:30 p.m. on CBS from Charlotte.