Vols Talk Recruiting, Improved D at SEC Media Days

Updated: July 18, 2013

SEC Media Days

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Ja’Wuan James hasn’t followed recruiting since he was a recruit in 2009. Now, he can’t help but hear all the talk about Tennessee’s 2014 class.

“This year I’ve heard so much,” the senior offensive tackle said at SEC Media Days. “I’ve heard we have the No. 1 class in some polls. I’ve been hosting a lot of these guys that have been coming. Coach [Butch] Jones does a good job of attracting these guys with his passion.”

Said junior offensive tackle Antonio Richardson, “I’ve heard buzz about four and five-star guys committing. I think that has a lot to do with Coach Jones. He brings a lot of energy. That’s what recruits want.”

Depending on what recruiting service one uses as a reference, the Vols have at least a top 10 class. Some even rank UT as No. 1 in the nation. Despite the lofty rankings, Jones refuses to take too much credit. Instead, he points to Tennessee’s many offerings.

“We have a great product to sell,” he said. “You look at our institution. You look at our national brand. You look at our facilities. You look at our fan base. You look at our academics. But people make a place and we truly have great people in place. Our coaches have done a great job and everyone has done a great job to date.

Players appear to be telling prospects all the right things. Despite struggling lately, defensive end Jacques Smith said no one should count out Tennessee moving forward. He’s sure that losing isn’t part of the future as much as it’s been in the recent past.

“That’s not what Tennessee football is about,” the senior said. “If they do question our integrity in that way, then they don’t know Tennessee football. The standard we have this spring is nothing but win. We’re going to win the day. We’re going to win the drill. We’re going to win the play every single down, every single snap, every single second.

“At the end of the fourth quarter, we will be victorious. I can’t wait to show the world that this is a different team. This is team 117 and we have something to prove. Our mission is to beat our opponents in everything no matter what it is. Coach Jones has us all fired up. The defense is fired up. The seniors are fired up and we’re going to go out with a bang.”

Team 117 refers to the 117th team in Tennessee football history. Clearly, the current Vols are ready to leave Team 114, 115 and 116 in the past.

New D, New Day: Smith is sure Tennessee will sport a more athletic defense. He’s also certain a 4-3 alignment will be more effective than last year’s 3-4 defense.

“I think it’s going to enable us to get after the quarterback a little more than we did last year,” Smith said. “Obviously our sack numbers weren’t that great.”

Tennessee registered only 17 sacks in 2012. Smith is sure that statistic will rise with a return to a 4-3. The sudden change last season was challenging.

“Playing that 3-4, there’s a lot of things you have to get down critically,” he said. “The short time we had last year, unfortunately it showed we didn’t focus on those small details. That’s what we focus on this year, small details.”

Aside from himself, Smith said defensive tackle Daniel McCullers and linebacker A.J. Johnson should benefit most from the 4-3 scheme. Smith had 33 tackles and two sacks last season. McCullers had 39 tackles and one sack. Johnson had 75 tackles but just one sack.

Smith said the new defense will allow McCullers to focus on one gap in the opposing offensive line instead of two. It will also allow Johnson to roam more than he was able to last season. As for Smith, he’ll be able to focus on pass rushing, especially on passing downs.

“I think I like having my hand down in the dirt a little more and not trying to trick the offense if I’m coming or I’m going,” he said. “I like my hand down and my butt up in the air. You better slide your protection my way because I’m going to hit your quarterback.”

UT’s offense could also help its defense. Jones’ staff would like to run 80 to 90 plays per game so they’ll have to practice like it. Through those up-tempo practices, Tennessee’s defense should be better conditioned and better equipped to handle up-tempo offenses that are currently in vogue.

“In the long run it makes us better,” Smith said. “We’re going to be playing a lot of fast teams this year. I can’t wait to play those teams. Practicing against these guys [on offense] and the offensive line we have, they’re the best in the country, they’re definitely going to improve us.

“I just can’t wait to show what we can do because they’re definitely helping us out with that fast pace.”

After last season, most think Tennessee’s defense is its most significant weak link. Smith doesn’t agree.

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