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10 Questions for 2010 #5 - The Justin Wilcox Defense

Upperclassmen on this defense have worked under John Chavis, Monte Kiffin, and now Justin Wilcox.  Those are three solid additions to any NFL Draft resume.  Each transition has led to at least some degree of hope that the new defense will be better than the last, which is remarkable considering the coordinators we're working with here. 

When Wilcox was hired back in February, OBNUG had an interesting observation:

Here's something new to chew on: Is Justin Wilcox a better coach right now than Derek Dooley is?

We revisit that notion not to stir the proverbial pot, but to point out the level of endorsement our new defensive coordinator brings from his previous stop.

Boise is Wilcox's only stop as a defensive coordinator, where he served from 2006-09.  In that same span, Tennessee's defense under Chavis and Kiffin had some ups and downs:  in total defense, the Vols were 50th nationally in '06 and 70th in '07, but rebounded to finish 3rd in '08 and 22nd in '09.

Under Wilcox, the Bronco defense finished in the Top 25 in scoring and total defense in each of his four years.  There is, of course, the issue of how well that success will translate from the WAC to the SEC.  It's an even bigger question for Tennessee this year because of the much more obvious question marks on the other side of the ball.

To a degree, these two things go together, but Tennessee's two losing seasons in the last five years both wasted excellent defensive performances:  the 2005 Vols were 6th nationally in total defense and 91st nationally in total offense; the 2008 Vols were 3rd nationally in total defense and 116th nationally in total offense.  Great defenses don't always lead to winning seasons.  But it's also been true in several seasons - most notably 1998 - that a good defense can be enough to carry an offense long enough for it to get its feet under it.  Tennessee's offense is going to get better every day - the QBs will get more experience, the offensive line has nowhere to go but up, and the young receivers will mature.  They may be a liability in September, but hopefully they'll be an asset by the end of the season.  Until then?

Is Tennessee's defense good enough to carry this team?

For starters, if you don't have a copy of Rocky Top Tennessee 2010 yet, you're not going to find anything more thorough on the Multiple 40 scheme than what DrB at Shakin the Southland wrote for the annual.  It's seven pages with plenty of diagrams - highly recommend it.

Beyond the specifics of Wilcox's scheme, does Tennessee have enough talent on this defense to not just survive, but succeed against the offenses they'll face? 

The biggest issue - depth at defensive tackle - we'll address specifically later in our series.  At end, Chris Walker is an NFL player, and it's hard for me to believe that we can't find somebody of real worth between Ben Martin, Gerald Williams, Malik Jackson, or even Jacques Smith or Corey Miller.  One of those guys has to be good enough to be a difference maker.

At linebacker, there are six guys - Frazier, King, Lathers, Mitchell-Thornton, Reveiz, and Thompson - who got a ton of quality experience last year, and should make the Vols secure at LB not just this year, but in the future.  That group of six does not include unknowns like converted fullback Austin Johnson and redshirt freshman Jerod Askew, who still have plenty of potential.  There are no superstars in this group...but with this much experience, I think we have plenty of reason to believe that the LBs will be more than solid this fall.

The secondary looked better with Dennis Rogan and Darren Myles.  Now you've got a group consisting of one known star in Janzen Jackson, and then some combination of Art Evans, Eric Gordon, Anthony Anderson, Prentiss Waggner, Stephaun Raines, and perhaps Eddrick Loften or one of the other athlete/DB signees.  We're lighter on experience with this group, though Evans was solid last year.  Is there a good secondary in here somewhere, or even a capable one?

Even if you look at this group and see only two real stars in Walker and Janzen (and perhaps Montori Hughes will eventually become one)...I feel like there's enough talent spread around to make for a solid group.

Which brings us back to Wilcox, and the interesting question of exactly how much more talent he's working with in this group than he ever had at Boise.

We mentioned the numbers and the Top 25 national rankings with the Broncos.  But of course, it helps when you're playing some of the less successful WAC teams every year.  So, let's take a look at what Boise's defense has done under Wilcox against BCS teams:

  • 2006 vs Oregon State:  263 yards, 3 turnovers, 42-14 W
  • 2006 vs #7 Oklahoma:  407 yards, 4 turnovers, 43-42 W (OT)
  • 2007 at Washington:  342 yards, 2 turnovers, 24-10 L
  • 2008 at #17 Oregon:  464 yards, 4 turnovers, 37-32 W
  • 2009 vs #16 Oregon:  152 yards, 2 turnovers, 19-8 W

While nothing stands up to Boise's dominance against Oregon last year, the Broncos more than held their own against BCS opponents under Wilcox.  You can see that their ability to create turnovers - Boise was in the Top 10 nationally in turnovers forced three of Wilcox's four years - isn't limited to getting five or six against the New Mexico States of the world.

A couple of additional things to point out about Wilcox's track record from Boise:

  • Not included are the last two bowl games against TCU, both the one where they played well (Fiesta Bowl last year:  308 yards, 3 turnovers, 17-10 W) and the one where they didn't (Poinsettia Bowl 2008:  472 yards, 2 turnovers, 17-16 L)
  • No other defensive coordinator can boast of having seen the two best running backs on the face of the earth right now, and again the results were mixed:  Adrian Peterson got only 77 yards on 20 carries in the upset loss.  Chris Johnson, however, lit up Wilcox for 408 total yards in a 41-38 ECU win in the 2007 Hawaii Bowl.

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that Wilcox is going to do just fine against the big boys.  His defenses found a way more often than not at Boise against the big boys, and now - where at least, in theory, he should have more speed and more talent to play with - his defense should have enough of everything to find a way against the SEC.

It's not necessarily a down year for offense in the SEC, but since the Vols don't play Ryan Mallett or Gus Malzahn, we do have an easier road.  Alabama will be good everywhere, but the Vol defense does face Florida without Tebow, Ole Miss without McCluster, and Georgia's redshirt freshman quarterback.  In terms of what we're going to have to try to stop, it's been much worse before.

And of course, we now get the special double bonus with Wilcox, as we'll not only see Oregon, but Jeremiah Masoli, who has to see Wilcox in his sleep after Boise knocked him out of the game in '08 and made him completely ineffective in '09.

The fact that Wilcox is so young makes everything he's done even more impressive - I don't see that as a negative factor at all.  His history and his creativity with his schemes suggest he's going to do great things.  Tennessee's talent and experience across the board suggest this defense can be good.

How good, and how good we'll need them to be?  We'll find out soon...but on a team with plenty of reasons for doubt, the defense is the one place I find reason to hope.