As most of you know by now, Tennessee's defense is not run by Justin Wilcox anymore. It's led by Sal Sunseri, who coached linebackers at Alabama last year, and is bringing the 3-4 alignment to Knoxville. What most of you don't know is whether that defense will be any good this year. A lot of things are uncertain coming into the 2012 season, from Justin Hunter's health to Daniel McCullers' conditioning. Yeah, we've heard a lot of good things from camp, but when don't you hear a lot of good things from camp? (The running game is fixed! The running game is fixed! Darn, the running game isn't fixed). But one of the biggest--if not the biggest--questions is how the defense will respond in its first year under a new system. And while that question may not have an answer right now, we do have a couple good places to look for hints: Tuscaloosa and Athens.
Georgia and Alabama have both transitioned from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive alignment within the last five years. How did they do? How should it shape our own expectations? Follow me after the jump, where I quote liberally from myself, with thanks to Todd at Roll Bama Roll for lots of good Tidal information.
The 2007 Tide had some strong defensive performances, but woeful depth in the front seven led to some disastrous second halves. Like in 2006, Alabama went 6-6 in the regular season, and several losses could be placed squarely on the shoulders of the offense, including a 21-14 defeat to Florida State and the embarrassing final stretch that included a 17-12 loss at Mississippi State and a 17-10 loss to rival Auburn sandwiching a 21-14 defeat at the hands of the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks.
But 2007 contained two disaster games for the Alabama defense, a 41-38 win over Arkansas and a 41-34 loss to eventual national champion LSU. In the former, Alabama gave up 300 yards to a Razorback rushing attack led by Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, and in the latter, the Tide surrendered 350 yards through the air to Matt Flynn. But in both games, the Alabama defense gave up three fourth quarter scores to spoil strong starts. Additionally, Alabama allowed big rallies from big deficits to Houston, Ole Miss, and Colorado, while Florida State scored all 21 points in the second half.
The most obvious culprit for Alabama's lack of defensive staying power was a thin front seven. The Tide lacked the classic space-eating nose tackle but got a strong performance in the middle from 280-pound sophomore Brandon Deaderick, who switched to end the following year after the enrollment of Terrence Cody and earned a late selection by the New England Patriots in the 2010 NFL Draft. But while Deaderick and two strong starters on the outside could open games, the lack of SEC-ready depth kept the defensive line from carrying their solid performance to the finish.
At linebacker, Alabama had an extraordinary talent in freshman Rolando McClain, but the linebacking corps also lacked depth and was forced to rely on contributions from players well below the talent level to which the Tide have become accustomed. Because the depth of talent in the secondary was better than that at linebacker, Alabama often ran nickle with a big safety creeping up into the middle of the field.
While the 2011 Volunteer defense would find the 2006 Tide's story familiar, the 2012 Tennessee front seven should be in far better position than their 2007 Alabama counterparts from a personnel standpoint. Not only does Tennessee return nine defensive starters from 2011, while Alabama's 3-4 transition stemmed from a change at head coach and required a personnel overhaul, Tennessee coach Derek Dooley has been recruiting 3-4 players since arriving in Knoxville in 2010. Alabama transfer Darrington Sentimore, who has 3-4 experience, and Marlon Walls are expected to start at end, and 4-3 tweener Trevarris Saulsberry will be a natural substitute at the 3-4 end after bouncing between end and tackle his freshman year. In the middle, not only does tackle Maurice Couch have more experience, more size, and a higher ceiling than Brandon Deaderick, Tennessee has jumbo-sized reinforcements coming this fall in the form of 380-pound JUCO transfer Daniel McCullers. While McCullers hasn't yet shown anything to the fans in Neyland, both Alabama and Georgia had success with JUCO nose tackles starting immediately. And for those squeamish about penciling JUCO transfers into starting roles, any depth provided by McCullers will be more than Alabama had in 2007.
At linebacker, Tennessee may not have a talent matching McClain, sophomores A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt showed great promise in outstanding freshman seasons, and Jacques Smith looks built for the Jack linebacker position, as do other 4-3 tweeners in senior Willie Bohannon and sophomore Jordan Williams. That said, even if senior Herman Lathers is fully recovered from a leg injury, depth at linebacker will be a question for the Vols. They have attempted to assuage these worries by moving junior fullback Channing Fugate to defense, and junior Brent Brewer, who has started two years at safety, has the perfect build to be the oversized safety that sneaks up to the line if the Vols go 3-3-5.
However, despite Tennessee's personnel advantages over most teams who switch defensive alignments, they have one obvious weakness in comparison to the 2007 Alabama team. The Tide had one of the greatest coaches of a generation installing the new defense, while the Vols sport a coordinator who has studied under greats like Saban and John Fox but who has never run a defense at the FBS level. So while Tennessee should expect to have more stamina than the 2007 Tide, it is an open question how their rested performances will compare.
For more on the 3-4 transition, how it compares to transitions made by Alabama and Georgia, and a host of other things you'll find interesting in anticipation of the 2012 season, follow the link at the bottom of the page.
The article quoted above is from our preseason Tennessee football magazine. If you're late to the party, it's 116 mostly ad-free pages of nothing but the stuff Vols football fans care about. It's not too late to get the Rocky Top Tennessee 2012 print edition ($19.99), the Kindle version ($9.99), or the ebook (a downloadable PDF) for $7.99. Enjoy!